Environment and Resource Management

Caring for our air

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Air pollution affects us all, because we all need clean air to survive. So does everything else in our environment. Read on to find out how you can help care for the air you share.

What is air pollution?

Air consists of gases and tiny particles of liquids and solids. It is made up of 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen and 1 percent that is a mixture of argon, neon, and carbon dioxide.

Without air we cannot survive. Oxygen is essential for our bodies to change food into energy. Carbon dioxide, although a greenhouse gas, is essential for plants to make their food.

Air pollution occurs when impurities called pollutants are released into the air. Pollutants can occur naturally or as a result of human activity.

Natural pollutants include dust, smoke and ash caused by bushfires, ocean spray, pollen from flowers, and insect droppings and mould growth.

A major source of human-caused pollution is the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas, petrol) for transport, electricity generation and industrial use.

Pollution such as smoke, soot, dust, ash, mist and smog are visible. Pollutants such as gases and odours cannot be seen, but are still air pollution.

Pollution sources and health effects

Motor vehicles cause most urban air pollution. Factories, coal-fired power stations, quarries, mines and smelters are industries that can cause high pollution levels, if emissions are not controlled.

In some places, backyard burning of garbage is another source of air pollution. However, backyard burning is banned in many cities and shires in Queensland.

Air pollutants in high concentrations affect our health and the health of plants and animals. Individual pollutants can cause specific problems such as breathing difficulties, eye irritation, damage to the brain and central nervous system, and can rob our bodies of life-giving oxygen (see carbon monoxide).

Indoor air

How clean is the air inside your home? In many homes, levels of air pollutants are higher than those outside. Pollution inside the home can be caused by gas appliances, cleaning chemicals, smoke from cigarettes, and chemicals escaping from soft furnishings. Keep your home well ventilated to prevent the build-up of air pollutants.

How nature reduces air pollution

Rainfall can absorb gases in the air so that they're washed out of the air and fall to the ground. After rainfall, air quality is usually improved, but the problem of pollution can be shifted to soil, waterways and the ocean.

Wind direction and intensity can disperse pollution if winds are strong enough (lighter winds may move the pollution in a particular direction, without dispersing it). Calm conditions help air pollutants accumulate and remain over the pollution source as a haze.

Plants absorb and convert carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) into oxygen for us to breathe. In this way, they create cleaner air and help reduce the greenhouse effect. Plants also act as filters between air pollutants and us, their leaves trapping air pollutants that are later washed away by rain.

Parks and nature reserves can be excellent buffer zones between residential areas and sources of pollution such as roads or industries.

Government role

Commonwealth government

Motor Vehicle Standards: National initiatives to reduce the harmful environmental effects of motor vehicles are coordinated by the Motor Vehicle Environment Committee (MVEC), which oversees research on motor vehicle emissions and prepares strategies that can be adopted by the government.

Emission standards for new vehicles are set by Australian Design Rules (ADR) under the Motor Vehicle Standards Act. The standards require that motor vehicles manufactured after 1986 must operate on unleaded fuel and have anti-pollution devices (catalytic converters) fitted. These initiatives have contributed to a reduction in lead levels and other pollutants in our air.

In July 1996, new rules were introduced to diesel vehicles sold in Australia to significantly reduce the quantity of emissions. Further emission reductions for petrol vehicles are required for all models manufactured since January 1997. New ADRs introduced in 1999 set out a program of emission requirements up to 2007, and complement the introduction of cleaner fuels.

National cleaner fuels agenda: National fuel quality standards have been reviewed and new standards for cleaner fuel are expected to come into effect from 2002. Cleaner fuels such as ultra-low sulfur diesel (less than 50ppm of sulfur) will provide immediate benefits and in addition will enable the use of new technology engines using catalytic converters and particle traps. These technologies, which cannot operate with high sulfur fuels, result in cleaner environmental performance with lower emissions of fine particles, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons.

National air quality standards: Uniform national air quality standards were agreed to in 1998 by the National Environment Protection Council comprising ministers from all States and Territories as well as the Commonwealth. The National Environment Protection Measure for Ambient Air Quality (Air NEPM) sets maximum levels for six pollutants (carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, photochemical oxidants (as ozone), sulfur dioxide, lead and particles) and goals for their long-term management.

Queensland government

Environmental Protection Act: In Queensland, air quality is regulated by the Environmental Protection Act, 1994. This Act, administered by the department, replaced outdated legislation, including the Clean Air Act.

The Environmental Protection Act creates a general environmental duty which requires everybody to reduce environmental harm wherever possible including air pollution. The Act identifies activities that have the potential to cause harm to the environment and requires that people or organisations carrying out such activities be licensed and monitored.

To meet licence conditions, industries can be required to fit filtration or other equipment to clean their exhaust fumes and reduce the environmental impacts of emissions. Regular inspections ensure standards are being maintained. These are just some of the measures the Act contains to reduce and control air pollution in Queensland

The Act also requires the development of environmental protection policies relating to specific aspects of the environment. Environmental protection policies set desirable standards and explain how they should be measured, achieved and monitored. The Environmental Protection (Air) Policy, 1997 took effect from February 1998. The department reports the results of its air quality monitoring against the EPP(Air) goals in monthly bulletins and annual reports.

Additionally, in 2000 the department made amendments to the Environmental Protection Regulation, 1998 to improve the environmental performance of motor vehicle fuels as described below.

Reducing lead in petrol: The introduction in 1986 of unleaded petrol in new cars began a steady decline in the use of leaded petrol (Super). Changes by oil refineries agreed with the government in the early 1990s also gradually reduced the lead content of leaded petrol. Legislation provided for lead in petrol to be phased out from 1 March 2001. Queenslanders were among the first in Australia to benefit from this phase-out, which became mandatory in Australia in 2002. Lead replacement petrol (LRP) offers equivalent performance to leaded petrol without its polluting effects. The department is continuing to monitor lead levels in south-east Queensland to identify the air quality impact of this legislative change.

Reducing sulfur in diesel: An important environmental specification for diesel fuel is the sulfur content. When diesel is burned, the greyish smoke produced at the exhaust is derived from sulfur. Currently, diesel produced in Australia has a sulfur content of less than 3000ppm, but some product entering the country has as much as 5000ppm of sulfur. Legislative changes have ensured that from 1 July 2000, all diesel in Queensland contains less than 500ppm sulfur. This resulted in an average improvement of about 25 percent in particulate emissions from existing engines.

Reducing petrol evaporation: During summer months petrol in south-east Queensland is required to have a lower vapour pressure to reduce evaporation to the atmosphere. The volatile components of petrol are known to contribute to photochemical pollution, which is more of a problem in summer when sunlight intensity and temperatures are higher. A further reduction in vapour pressure is to apply from the 2002-2003 summer period.

Air Monitoring: The department monitors air quality in south-east Queensland (SEQ), Gladstone, Mount Isa, Rockhampton, Mackay and Townsville.

Levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, sulfur dioxide, lead and airborne particles are monitored at various sites. Results are compared with the EPP(Air) goals, Air NEPM standards and international guidelines to assess air quality.

South East Queensland Regional Air Quality Strategy: The South East Regional Air Quality Strategy was launched on 12 December, 1999 and is now available in electronic format. The strategy focuses on implementing actions aimed at improving air quality in south-east Queensland. The SEQRAQS Implementation Group includes representatives from the department, other State Government departments, local government, community groups and industry associations.

Queensland Transport: Queensland Transport, represented on the SEQRAQS Implementation Group, is responsible for legislation involving motor vehicle design, maintenance and emissions. Queensland Transport conducts a range of programs to encourage people to maintain their cars, reduce exhaust emissions and reduce their use of cars. Recent transport initiatives include:

Local government

Many councils protect air quality by:

Industry role

Industries in SEQ can play their part in maintaining air quality by complying with their responsibilities under the Environmental Protection Act 1994 and their participation in the SEQRAQS.

Industries continually striving for improvement in their air emissions should investigate their options for implementing a cleaner production program.

Your role

There are many ways we can all help to care for our air. View the air quality monitoring information for the current air quality and tips on reducing air pollution.

Last updated: 21 June 2007

Caring for our air

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