Burning Issues

Sydney Morning Herald Fri 28Dec01 (Net version)

Smoky skies will cause deaths, environmental experts warn
By Ellen Connolly

As air pollution remains at dangerously high levels across Sydney, environmental experts predict the death rate from heart and respiratory problems will rise.

John Dengate, from the Environment Protection Authority, said a 1998 study found a link between pollution levels and the mortality rate of people who suffered asthma or lung problems.
"It showed that every 10 micrograms/cubic metre increase in levels in Sydney was associated with a 1 per cent increase in mortality. If those figures are correct, then one would presume there will be a 9 per cent to 10 per cent increase in mortality rate [as a result of these fires]," Mr Dengate said.

This week Sydney has experienced the worst pollution levels since the 1994 bushfires, peaking at a rating of 237 - almost five times the national standard - on Boxing Day.

The pall of bushfire smoke that has blanketed Sydney's skies since Tuesday lifted slightly yesterday due to a light wind.

The EPA recorded levels ranging from 176 in eastern Sydney to 74 in south-western Sydney.

Mr Dengate said this was still considered very high, given that 50 was the national health standard.

The director of the Total Environment Centre, Jeff Angel, said that everyone was a victim of the fires.
"From past experiences ... there will be deaths from respiratory problems," Mr Angel said. "The whole population suffers, not just those who are directly impacted by the flames. The air pollution is also going to harm people.

"For those who have existing respiratory problems or are older the impact can be quite devastating. When it's harder to breathe, it puts pressure on the heart."

Hospitals across Sydney have treated many people for respiratory problems, but could not say whether the fires were to blame.

A three-year study by the NSW Health Department released in 1996 revealed 400 people were dying of heart and lung failure in Sydney every year after exposure to serious air pollution.

On days of high pollution, the number of deaths in Sydney hospitals increased by 2 to 3 per cent, the report found.

The number of people admitted with asthma attacks rose by 6 per cent, with heart disease by 6 to 7 per cent, and elderly people with respiratory diseases by 2 to 3 per cent.

A spokeswoman for Asthma Australia warned people with respiratory problems to stay indoors where possible and seek medical attention as soon as their condition worsened.

My letter
   Today's warnings (SMH, December 28) about the health hazards of woodsmoke are a timely reminder of the dangers of smoke pollution.  
  The cited 3-year study of Sydney found that both deaths and particles were generally higher in winter.  Carbon dating of air samples (from 4 pm to 8 am the following morning, on winter days when the air was free of bushfire smoke) found that 67% of particles at Rozelle, near the CBD, and 81% of those at Winmalee, in the Blue Mountains, were from woodsmoke.  Yet only 13% of Sydney's households use wood heating.

   A recent study in Tasmania found that new wood heaters produced no less smoke than older models. 

   It may be difficult to avoid the health hazards of a few day's bushfire smoke in summer.  But families and their neighbours could avoid a winter's health hazardous woodsmoke by use of non-polluting heating.

(146 words)

Subject: Limericks and Letters about Sydney's smoke pollution
Mime-Version: 1.0

Our valley fills with pollution
Shouldn't we find a solution?
A few wood-smokers cry
..cough, gasp, wheeze... "tell me why
we need this ..cough.. Healthy Clean-Air Revolution?"

Sunshine is abundant and free
And there's sustainable wind energy
If we powered our homes
With these watts, volts and ohms
What a clean, clever country we'd be!

When our valley fills with smoke
Asthmatics and others may choke
But if solar heaters we fit
We'd less often get sick
And be happier healthier folk.

Interestingly ... last week's ABC "Best of Landline" talked about 0.7 Megawatt wind turbines which cost about $1 million to install (less if they could be made locally) and would provide power for 3,500 homes.   I think they probably meant 350 homes, but even at that price, the cost is almost comparable with a new wood heater.   For Armidale, solar heating still seems the best & cheapest option - but wind energy may be a very good choice for some places.

I also received the following email today concerning the smoke pollution in Sydney:
"Perhaps some letters pointing out that wood burnt in fireplaces has the same effect would be helpful. The study with 400 deaths below is about wood heaters not bushfires. "

Sounds like a good idea - anyone?  letters@smh.fairfax.com.au
I looked up the EPA's website.  Daily average PM10 pollution yesterday in Sydney ranged from 61 micrograms per cubic metre in Liverpool to 85 in Earlwood.  We've actually measured a daily average 147 micrograms per cubic metre in East Armidale.  Sydney may be badly affected by smoke, but a number of incorrectly operated woodheaters pooling smoke into a stagnant airshed can be even worse.   The problem of bushfires may be difficult to solve, but we should and could do more about continuously smoking chimneys.

Actually, the SMH article is a bit confusing.  I believe the 237 etc are the EPA Air pollution index, which is different from the micrograms per cubic metre John Dengate talks about (and the 61-85 or 147 for East Armidale I cite above, which are daily average PM10 concentrations).

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