Air quality in NSW

Overview of research into air quality in NSW and its impacts on health and the economy.

NSW State of the Environment 2015 provides a comprehensive assessment of air quality in NSW: see Chapter 2 - Atmosphere.

The current status of air quality in NSW is summarised within NSW Annual Air Quality Statements and NSW Annual NEPM Compliance Reports.

Past, recent and future air quality in NSW are discussed in the Air Quality in NSW (PDF 303KB) background paper supporting the Clean Air Summit in June 2017, and the technical paper (PDF 1.7MB) supporting the Clean Air Forum held in 2010.

Current state of air quality

Air quality in New South Wales is comparable to other Australian jurisdictions, with air pollution concentrations low by world standards.

Air quality improved since the 1980s, with reductions in ambient nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) and lead being measured. Ambient concentrations of these air pollutants are all consistently below the respective national standards in most areas. Reductions in ambient NO2, CO and SO2 have however tailed off in recent years.

National air quality standards are exceeded from time to time due to ozone levels in urban areas and particle (PM10 and PM2.5) concentrations in urban and regional areas.

Particle pollution

Particle pollution can harm respiratory and cardiovascular health, especially in the young, the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions. This pollution is due to particles released directly from sources, and particles formed by chemical reactions in the air and involving precursor gases.

Human activities such as motor vehicles, residential wood heaters, mining, industry and power generation and non-road vehicles and equipment contribute to particle pollution. Particle levels exceeding national standards are often associated with regional dust storms and vegetation fires.

Recently completed research studies which have expanded the evidence base on the composition and sources of particle pollution in NSW includes the:

The Air Emissions Inventory for the Greater Metropolitan Region in NSW provides detailed information on sources of particle and particle precursor pollutant emissions.

Research into trends, sources and impacts of particle pollution is ongoing, being a focus within the Sydney Air Quality Study.

Ozone pollution

Ground-level ozone is an air pollutant that is harmful to human health and vegetation. Ozone is a secondary photochemical pollutant formed in the air when precursor pollutants, oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds, react in sunlight.

High ozone in the Sydney basin and Illawarra can result from local emissions, or precursor pollutants being transported from other regions. Exceedances of ozone standards usually occur in the warmer months, with peaks coinciding with high temperature days and bushfires. South-west and north-west Sydney generally experiences more frequent exceedance days due to ozone pollution.

The Air Emissions Inventory for the Greater Metropolitan Region in NSW provides information of sources of ozone precursor pollutant emissions.

The Ozone State of Knowledge study, completed in 2010, consolidated and expanded knowledge on ground level ozone pollution and events contributing to high ozone levels in the Sydney, Illawarra and the lower Hunter regions.

Information on recent trends in ozone levels is detailed in the Air Quality in NSW (PDF 303KB) background paper supporting the Clean Air Summit in June 2017, the State of the Environment report 2015: Air quality, and within NSW Annual Air Quality Statements.

Research into trends, sources and impacts of ozone pollution is ongoing as part of the Sydney Air Quality Study.

Air toxics

Air toxics include benzene, dioxins, lead and other metals. Major sources of these toxics include motor vehicle exhaust and some commercial and industrial processes.

Results of NSW Government monitoring indicate that levels of air toxics in the Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong areas are generally low in comparison to comparable cities in Europe and North America. More information can be found on the air toxics page.

Following the phasing out of leaded petrol, ambient lead levels have reduced to generally well within the national annual standard. However, lead levels remain a concern in some regional towns with large sources of lead. The Broken Hill Environmental Lead Study is being undertaken to assess levels and sources of airborne lead in Broken Hill.

Health effects and costs of air pollution

Even though air quality in NSW is good by international standards, air pollution continues to have a significant impact on human health and the economy of NSW.

The Air Pollution Economics: Health costs in the Greater Sydney Metropolitan Region (PDF 212KB) study published in 2005 estimated the cost to health of ambient air pollution in the Greater Metropolitan Region of NSW, which includes Sydney, the Illawarra and lower Hunter. Each year, the health effects of particle air pollution are estimated to cost several billions of dollars, with a significant portion of the health effects due to premature deaths resulting from long-term exposure to fine particles. Research suggests that substantial health benefits are attainable with even modest reductions in air pollution.

Research into the air quality and related health effects and costs associated with air pollution is ongoing as part of the Sydney Air Quality Study. This study will also evaluate the air quality improvements and avoided health impacts and costs that may be achieved by reducing emissions from major sources such as motor vehicles, industry and residential wood heating.