A study of air pollution shows Brisbane has one of the lowest levels of particulate matter – less than 20 micrograms per cubic meter and a diameter of less than 10 micrometers (PM10) in The Economists index of the most polluted cities in the world’s biggest economies.
Air pollution is a constant reminder of how fragile our environment is to us. It is one of the major environmental problems faced by many large industrialized cities worldwide over the last couple of centuries after the beginning of the industrial revolution. Air pollution in general is a combination of six of the most common components introduced into the air from industrial and natural sources. The components are ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and lead. Thankfully, in most of the major industrialized cities the levels of these components are trending down due to technological advances and the enforcement of tough environmental laws. In the case of Brisbane, which is following the same trend has seen significant improvement in the air quality in the region.
Between the years 1996 – 2012 there has been large variability in the levels of PM10 due to brushfires and dust storms, but the levels have been trending down since 2010 with the help of brushfire management programs. Ozone, which is indicative of smog, has been trending down in the same time period since 1996 and appears to be stabilizing. Nitrogen dioxide also has been trending down for a much longer period of 22 years. The Clean Air Strategy put in place by Council in 1996 is behind these improvements in air quality there.
These pollutants come from many sources in Brisbane; with the vast majority of them emitted in the air from human activities and the rest come from natural sources. Motor vehicles, electricity generation, industrial activities, bushfires and large-scale vegetation burning are the main sources of air pollution. Seventy percent of the smog in Brisbane is generated from vehicle emissions that react photochemically to the ozone and the number of vehicles on the road is estimated to increase by 30% by 2026. Electricity generating power plants produces air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal or natural gases. The end result is the emission of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Industrial activities are the primary source of pollution including particulate matter, organic chemicals and nitrogen oxides with some particulate matter coming from bushfires and controlled large-scale vegetation burning. There is also a concern for indoor pollution since we spend 90% of our time indoors.
Now there is a large-scale effort by the government, industries and citizens of Brisbane to improve and maintain air quality at acceptable levels. The city council is urging citizens to report vehicles emitting smoke for more than 10 seconds to the Department of Transport and Main Roads, buy more fuel efficient vehicles, use public transportation, and walk or cycle to their destinations. Furthermore, citizens who own aging vehicles need to properly maintain them so that they will burn fuel as efficiently as possible to keep air pollution within acceptable levels. Air quality in homes and offices can be improved and maintained at acceptable level by ventilating the enclosed area regularly, ensuring flues for gas heaters and stoves are properly maintained, using low or solvent-free cleaners and by using low or non-toxic interior paint. Finally, to reduce air pollution from fossil-fuel burning plants; electricity need to be produce by other means such as solar power and wind power.
All the latest data seems to indicate Brisbane’s air is already clean for a large city despite recent high growth. The city is clearly moving in the right direction in achieving the goal set by the City Council’s Clean Air Strategy in 1996, that is, making Brisbane the city with the cleanest air in Australia by 2026. For example, Brisbane’s air pollution level did not exceed the national guidelines set in 2010 for air pollution levels. Brisbane had no occurrences of exceedances; while Melbourne and Perth each had four exccedances and Sydney had ten exceedances for ozone level. Another set of data that indicate the Clean Air Strategy is working is the growth rate for the number of complaints filed is slowing down and stabilizing for both residential and industrial complaints where more than 70% of these complaints are residential. Finally, a breakdown of the data for residential complaints reveal that backyard burning makeups 39% of these complaints followed by 18% for asbestos and overspray, 10% for odors, 9% for dust, and 6% for smoke. The number of complaints would drop significantly for residential complaints if the city council got tougher on these violators, especially for backyard burning, and if that does happen the city will reach this goal set through the Council’s Clean Air Strategy much sooner.