The inequity of this silent killer


When our kids were little, our family moved to Hanoi for my partner’s job. After we’d settled in to our new neighbourhood of Tay Ho (Westlake), we enjoyed walking the streets and admiring the beauty of the city. Hanoi is set around a number of lakes and filled with historic buildings and old winding laneways that are too narrow for cars. It is also surprisingly green. Plants grow on every available square inch, crammed into tiny pockets of dirt and pots.

Main image: Smoke billowing from pipes (Depositphotos)

But we hadn’t been there long until we begun bemoaning the frequency of foggy days and waiting hopefully for the rare clear days when Westlake would shine blue and we could see clearly over the rooftops from our sixth-story terrace.

I can’t remember exactly when I admitted to myself that it wasn’t fog that was obscuring visibility. But once I had fully acknowledged the extent of the airborne pollution, I felt a lot less keen on living in Hanoi with young children.

So we moved back to Australia.

The thing is that most people in Hanoi do not have this option open to them, especially not the poorest. They can’t leave, no matter how poor the air quality. Like the effects of climate change and water contamination, airborne pollution is an issue of environmental justice, because it disproportionately affects those with the least capacity to move — the poor, the marginalised, and those, such as Indigenous peoples, with a significant relationship to place.

And this is not just an issue overseas.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) recently released their report into air pollution in Australia. The Dirty Truth documents the pollution index of every postcodes in Australia and the results are shocking. A full 90 per cent of the burden of air pollution falls on low to middle income households, while just 0.1 per cent falls on those with the highest income.


"The ACF point out the disproportionate power of fossil fuel lobby groups as compared to low-income and minority communities, who have few advocates at the national level. What they don’t mention is the deliberate efforts by government to strip these communities of the few advocates they do have."


And this pollution kills. An estimated 3,000 Australians are dying prematurely from urban air pollution every year, and many more are suffering from higher rates of illness such as asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and other chronic pulmonary diseases.

The overwhelming majority (91 per cent) of all air pollution in Australia comes from three major industries: mining, manufacturing and utilities — all of which are closely linked to the fossil fuel industry. The Australian government’s cosy relationship with these industries goes some way to explaining why it currently has no strategy to effectively address the health crisis they are causing.

The ACF make four key recommendations in their report. The first is to establish 'new laws and a National Sustainability Commission to set national air pollution standards'. Amazingly, Australia currently has no binding national air pollution standards. The second and third recommendations focus on strengthening the regulation of highly polluting industries and enforcement mechanisms.

The ACF’s final recommendation is that we develop an environmental justice framework to ensure 'that disadvantaged communities do not continue to bear a higher burden of pollution than other Australians'. This would 'include requirements on decision-makers to consider environmental justice implications of their decisions, to take action to reduce pollution in disadvantaged areas, and to not approve any new polluting facilities in low-socioeconomic areas'.

This emphasis on environmental justice highlights the fact that the most vulnerable groups are those with the least power to resist the development of polluting industries in their backyards. Consider, the US example of Standing Rock, where the planned path of the Dakota Access Pipeline was diverted from the majority-white city of Bismarck to just upstream of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. More routine examples include the creation and expansion of industrial areas on the periphery of cities — such as Melbourne’s Western Suburbs — where affordable housing is also located.

Here the link between environmental justice and a well-functioning democracy is starkly revealed. The ACF point out the disproportionate power of fossil fuel lobby groups as compared to low-income and minority communities, who have few advocates at the national level. What they don’t mention is the deliberate efforts by government to strip these communities of the few advocates they do have.

Over the last two decades, Australian governments have used funding agreements and threats to both funding and tax-deductible status to restrict the advocacy of the non-government sector — particularly those focused on environmental issues. As Emily Howie, a director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, argues: 'When you sideline the not-for-profit sector from public discussion, you silence the voices of the most marginalised people, undermine policy making and, ultimately, diminish our democracy'.

The air pollution crisis, and its disproportionate impact on disadvantaged groups in Australia, is a deadly indicator of a broader systemic crisis in our democracy. Unchecked pollution, increasing inequality and poorly regulated industries are bad news for all of us. If we want to turn things around, we will have to reclaim our democracy from those interest groups who profit from the damage.


Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a lecturer at the Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice. Her research focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.


Main image: Smoke billowing from pipes (Depositphotos)

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, air pollution, the dirty truth, environmental justice, auspol



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Existing comments

"Our democracy should be the best tool we have to care for people, plan for the future and protect the environment, but it has to work for all of us. Right now, corporate influence in politics is getting in the way of progress on everything from tackling climate change to housing affordability. Instead of delivering a better future for all of us, both the Liberal and Labor parties take millions of dollars in donations from big corporations, hold private meetings, and organise cushy lobbyist jobs for ex-politicians, with no transparency or accountability. They donate for a reason. In return for their donations, property developers, big banks, gambling corporations and mining giants have received billions of dollars worth of favourable policy decisions from Liberal and Labor governments. While the major parties continue to take money from big corporate interests, they will never be completely focused on what is good for our communities. Unlike the major parties, the Greens refuse to take donations from corporations trying to buy influence. That means we are entirely focused on outcomes that are good for our community, not outcomes that suit big donors. We can’t be bought and we won’t sell out. We have a plan to return integrity and transparency to the political system and hold politicians and major parties to account." Food for thought from the Australian Greens website!

Grant Allen | 24 November 2018  

Unless I missed it you didn’t mention the big effect the chemicals and VOCs have on air pollution.

Narelle Ford | 26 November 2018  

The ACF report is worth a read because the politically motivated bias makes it so obviously misleading. It cites the vast majority of Australia’s pollution falling on those people that are in the bottom 60%. Whilst correct a fairer way to reference this fact might be to explain the burden falling exactly in the middle. You argue those affected are least able to move but this fact applies for all of Australia across all industries. This is a structural impediment in Australia. The reference to a particular subset loses almost all relevance. Australia’s coal stations were built 50 years ago on top of coal seams ensuring economic supply to power major cities for decades to come. It could be reasonbly argued that today’s burden of pollution falling exactly in the middle - decades later - is a miracle feat of forward planning. Australia’s most expensive post codes are coastal and subject to maritime effects. This serves as a good example. Should Australia run out of water, we will need desalination plants and these will be run will gas/oil generation capacity ( decentralized ). Ie this infrastructure and its burden will sit in areas that house the most wealthy citizens. Why ? Because the economy of doing so is so compelling. The ACF report is a political tool and certainly not a foundational report to inform better policy decisions...

Patrick | 26 November 2018  

Thanks Cristy for your very insightful article. It is now, more than ever, time to remove all those lobbyists from the corridors of Canberra and return the parliament to the people. Both major parties receive far too much funding from fossil fuel entities.

Tom Kingston | 26 November 2018  

Thanks Christy, Cars and trucks are the biggest problem in the cities. Carbon monoxide from petrol engines, CO2 from gas cars, soot from diesel engines. It all adds up. Also in winter CO2 from briquettes and wood burning stoves fireplaces and the coal fired power stations that produce electricity. They 've developed solar cars but no one uses them. Qld University has developed a direct fuel cell to convert any grade of coal to gas but no one has adopted that as it would cost too much to scrap the existing systems. The DFC output of CO2 (the inventor says) is 2%. There is no combustion. Australia has massive reserves in the Surat and Galilee basins and at Morwell Yallorn, Hunter Valley etc. We need to adopt new technology. More wind turbines in the sea. Wave generators. We have a 27,000 km coastline. More hydro turbines on dams where there are none. Better solar systems. These will cut down the emissions. Less red tape from local Government.

Frank Armstrong | 26 November 2018  

Grant Allen, the policies of the Greens do make me think, and I'm sorry I can't vote for them. The thing that stops me is their support for euthanasia and abortion.Because I can't, in conscience, vote for the Greens, let alone the Libs and Labor, I'll probably decline to vote in the next election. Sorry.

Gavan | 26 November 2018  

Thanks Kristy for explaining so clearly just what a mess we are in environmentally with our pollution affecting those least responsible for it.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 27 November 2018  

Gavan, thanks for your comment. I don't support euthanasia either, or abortion unless a pregnancy genuinely threatens the life of the mother. However I think the biggest threats to human life by far are climate change and poverty and in this regard the Greens seem to me to have the best policies. Thanks again for your comment!

Grant Allen | 27 November 2018  

The referenced A.C.F. study says “An estimated 3,000 Australians die prematurely from urban air pollution every year. This is more than two-and-a-half times the number of deaths on our roads.” All true, but how meaningful is that comparison? The pollution deaths cut off those 3000 Australians lives by about 4 months on average (I’m basing that U.S. figures). So all up that’s about 1000 years of lost life expectancy (LLE) each year to air pollution in Australia. But now consider the significantly smaller number of road fatalities. In 2017, 48 people aged 0 to 16 were killed on the roads. If we assume Australian life expectancy to be about 80 years, and take about 8 years as the midpoint age of 0-16, that means those 48 road fatalaties alone generated an LLE of 3500 years. And if we consider the whole 2017 cohort, we find that the 1224 road deaths created a cumulative LLE of about 32,000 years. 32,000 years from 1224 deaths vs 1000 years from 3000 ! I’m reluctant to reveal this lest the ACF members, in their leafy postcodes, take it as a cue to urge the total banning of cars, except naturally for the really safe and expensive ones which only the rich can afford. But the truth has to be told: this study is grossly misleading, on this as on many other issues.

HH | 27 November 2018  

(Further to comment above.) But there’s a deeper consideration to be made before accusing mines, refineries, etc, of silent “killing” via pollution. Some levels of pollution may be unavoidable in the creation of life-enhancing products such as affordable energy. Suppose that product X (e.g. cheap energy) adds 2 years to the life expectancy (LE) of all Australians, including the poor. Suppose again that the production of X may incidentally and unavoidably create a Loss of LE (LLE) of a month in the case of a few thousand poorer victims. Even those victims still have a net 23 months added to their LE by X. So even in their case, what would be the point of calling the production pollution of X a “silent killer”, if not having X at all, or having it at a higher price because of a more expensive albeit cleaner production process, would result in a much higher net LLE ? Surely not having X, or not having it available at a cheaper rate, is far more deserving of the label “silent killer”? The A.C.F. paper however doesn’t so much as hint at this side of the issue before making its conclusions. I agree with Patrick above. The dirty truth behind “The Dirty Truth” is that the A.C.F. is not really interested in revealing the truth to help the poor, but has another agenda altogether.

HH | 28 November 2018  

Why does the writer use a 30 year old photo to feature in the article. What comes out of current power stations is steam which is used to prevent escape of soot--regulations for this are tight.

BERNARD TRESTON | 30 November 2018  

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