The data and information presented here does not include the impacts of the 2019-20 fire season which resulted in significant periods of hazardous air quality – the worst on record for the ACT. This website will be updated with 2019-20 air quality data as information is made available.
PM2.5 is the most serious air quality issue for the ACT
WOOD HEATERS and TRANSPORT are the main causes of air pollution
Between 2015 and 2018, there were 31 exceedances of the PM2.5 standard
Air quality impacts from controlled burns, bushfires and dust storms are likely to INCREASE with climate change
This section provides an assessment of air quality, the impacts of air pollution on human health, the sources and emissions of air pollutants, and amenity. For the emissions of greenhouse gases see Indicator CC3: Greenhouse gas emissions.
Air quality is one of the most tangible indicators of the state of our local environment, and directly affects human health and wellbeing. If air pollutants reach high enough concentrations, they can endanger human health and the environment. Clean air is associated with better physical and mental health, longer life and significant financial savings from reduced health-care expenses and work absences. Clean air is also essential for biodiversity and ecosystem health.
The sources of air pollution in the ACT and their impacts on health are shown in Figure A1.
Currently, the main sources of air pollution in Canberra are wood heaters, motor vehicles (especially diesel exhaust), wind-blown dust, bushfires, planned burning activities and industry. Everyday choices, such as driving cars and burning wood for domestic heating, can have a significant impact on air quality.
Air quality is primarily of concern in areas with high concentrations of population, transport and industrial activities. Such areas can experience localised air quality problems which have the potential to cause adverse health impacts.
Higher temperatures and reduced rainfall associated with climate change is likely to increase the impact of smoke and dust on air quality. Planned burning measures to reduce the severity of bushfires is also likely to increase smoke impacts. In addition, higher temperatures are likely to increase ozone formation.
Pollen concentrations are also a challenge in the ACT, which was reported to have the highest rate of allergic rhinitis in Australia (29% of the population) in 2017–18.Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2018, National Health Survey: First Results, 2017–18, ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.001, Canberra. For more information see Case study: Health impacts of pollen and spores.
Smoke from domestic wood heaters, controlled burns and bushfires, are the most significant sources of particulate matter in the ACT. Particle pollution is also produced by industry and motor vehicle emissions. Particle pollution can also result from anthropogenic sources (smoke from wood heaters and controlled burning, motor vehicles – particularly diesel, and industry) and natural sources (dust storms, bushfires and pollen). Particle pollution is usually the community’s main indicator of air quality, as it is often evident as a haze which reduces visibility. Climate change is likely to increase the occurrence of particle pollution with conditions leading to dust storms and more prevalent fires.
Particle pollution is the most significant air quality problem in the ACT with high levels associated with respiratory and cardiovascular illness. Current research suggests that there is no level of PM at which health impacts do not occur. The specific effect of a particle on health depends on its size, composition and concentration. Particles are associated with increased respiratory symptoms, aggravation of asthma, increased mortality and hospital admissions for heart and lung diseases.
The most common measures of particles are PM10 (particulate matter that is 10 micrometres or less in diameter) and PM2.5 (particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter). In comparison, a human hair is about 100 micrometres in diameter. Particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres are considered to have more significant health impacts due to their deeper penetration into the lungs.
Ozone is not directly emitted into the air; it is formed when volatile organic compounds (from industry, vehicles and vegetation) and oxides of nitrogen (from industry, vehicles and natural gas use) react in sunlight. These reactions only produce significant amounts of ozone on warm sunny days with light or recirculating winds. Ozone can also form downwind of bushfires when the chemicals in smoke react in the presence of sunlight. In the future, the higher temperatures predicted as a result of climate change are likely to lead to a greater potential for ozone formation.
Human exposure to high concentrations of ozone can result in decreased lung function, increases in asthma attacks, and increases in hospital admissions for people with heart and lung conditions. Higher levels of ozone can also affect vegetation growth and ecosystems.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is mainly produced from vehicle engine exhaust. High levels of CO can affect human health, especially for children, the elderly and those with asthma. Very high levels of CO may cause health problems for birds and animals. CO also plays a role in climate change. Although CO is a weak greenhouse gas, it can affect the concentrations of other stronger greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane.
Despite vehicle exhaust being the primary source of CO in the ACT, progressive improvement in motor vehicle emissions has meant that levels of CO have not increased with the growth in traffic over time.
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is mainly produced from vehicle engine exhaust. NO2 is also produced by the burning of fuels such as natural gas and diesel. NO2 is harmful to human health, especially for children, the elderly and those with asthma. Low levels of NO2 can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs of humans and animals. Very high levels of NO2 can affect the environment by killing plants and roots, and damaging the leaves of agricultural crops. Very high levels of NO2 can also cause an increase in rain acidity, which can harm ecosystems.
Despite vehicle exhaust being the primary source of NO2 in the ACT, progressive improvement in motor vehicle emissions has meant that levels of NO2 have not increased with the growth in traffic over time.
Amenity refers to environmental nuisance, such as the occurrence of noise, smoke, dust, light and pollution incidents. These can interfere with daily activities and the quality of life by impacting on the quiet enjoyment of households (for example, the ability to sleep, study, relax and use outdoor space) and use of recreational areas. Impacts on amenity can have significant health consequences such as sleep deprivation, as well as economic consequences such as the ability to work.
Identification of deterioration in amenity comes from community complaints received by the ACT government. The number of complaints is dependent on a range of factors such as the sensitivity of community members to particular issues, and the number of complaints made about each individual event. Consequently, it is difficult to assess trends in amenity. Despite this, complaints data does provide information on the everyday environment concerns of the ACT community.
That the ACT Government:
continue to promote the replacement of wood heaters, particularly in the Tuggeranong Valley.
increase the community’s uptake of public and active transport to reduce private vehicle emissions.
increase the number of National Environment Protection (Ambient Air Quality) Measure compliant air quality monitoring stations to improve the assessment of localised air pollution issues.
improve knowledge of the impacts of air pollution on human health and associated costs to the health system and economy.
undertake an assessment of air pollutant emissions from diffuse sources to update the National Pollutant Inventory data from 1999.
With the exception of particulate matter (PM2.5) air quality levels were compliant with the with National Environment Protection (Ambient Air Quality) Measure standards. PM2.5 remains a concern for the Tuggeranong Valley, particularly given the current consensus that there is no safe concentration of particles for sensitive people. Smoke from wood heaters is the main cause of PM2.5 exceedances in the ACT.
There is currently no data available on the impacts of air pollution on human health in the ACT, nor the associated costs to the health system and the economy. Current expert and research consensus suggests that air pollution, even at concentrations below the current air quality standards, is associated with adverse health effects.
- ? Poor
- ? Unknown
- ? Good
Data on the sources and emissions of diffuse source air pollution, which make up the majority of emissions in the ACT, has not been updated since 1999. In the absence of current data it is not possible to assess changes in air pollution emissions over the reporting period. The ACT’s annual monitoring and reporting activities for point source (industry) emissions complied with the National Environment Protection National Pollutant Inventory Measure over the reporting period.
- ? Poor
- ? Unknown
- ? Good
Over the 2017–18 and 2018–19 periods, the EPA received 5,562 environmental complaints. Concerns about noise were responsible for 80% of all complaints and is clearly a significant issue for the ACT community. Amplified noise was the source of most noise complaints. Air pollution received the second highest number of complaints (13%), with smoke the source of most complaints. With only 2 years of data available, it is not possible to assess trends over the reporting period.
- ? Poor
- ? Unknown
- ? Good
Indicator assessment legend
Environmental condition is healthy across the ACT, OR pressure likely to have negligible impact on environmental condition/human health.
Environmental condition is neither positive or negative and may be variable across the ACT, OR pressure likely to have limited impact on environmental condition/human health.
Environmental condition is under significant stress, OR pressure likely to have significant impact on environmental condition/ human health.
Data is insufficient to make an assessment of status and trends.
Adequate high-quality evidence and high level of consensus
Limited evidence or limited consensus
Evidence and consensus too low to make an assessment
Assessments of status, trends and data quality are not appropriate for the indicator
Air quality over the reporting period (2015 to 2018)
PM2.5 is the most serious air quality issue for the ACT with levels that are likely to have health implications for sensitive individuals.
Over the reporting period, there were 31 exceedances of the daily National Environment Protection (Ambient Air Quality) Measure (AAQ NEPM) standard for PM2.5. The Monash station accounted for 28 of the exceedances.
Exceedance results show that PM2.5 pollution is far more likely in the Tuggeranong Valley.
Over the reporting period, there were no exceedances of AAQ NEPM standards for Carbon Monoxide (CO), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), ozone (O3) and particulate matter less than 10 micrometres in size (PM10).
Climate change is likely to increase the frequency and severity of smoke and dust impacts on air quality, and increased ozone formation.
Health impacts of air pollution
Any reduction in air pollution will result in health benefits, even where pollutant concentrations are within the air quality standards.
Emissions of air pollutants
Diffuse sources of air pollutants, especially from transport and wood heaters, are known to be the main contributors to air pollution in the ACT.
Over the 2017–18 and 2018–19 period, the ACT Environment Protection Authority (EPA) received 5,562 environmental complaints.