Vehicle emissions may cause over 11,000 deaths a year, researchers say

A broad group of air pollution experts call for urgent action to clear the air, as estimates show the health impacts of vehicle pollution.

New estimates by Melbourne Climate Futures researchers shows that health impacts from vehicle emissions are likely to be far higher than previous figures informing policy decisions, as a broad group of air pollution experts call for urgent action to clear the air.

Speaking at today's Vehicle Pollution Forum, Melbourne Climate Futures Academy fellows Ms Clare Walter and Dr Kelvin Say said the latest research shows that vehicle emissions in Australia may cause:

  • 11,105 premature deaths in adults per year;
  • 12,210 cardiovascular hospitalisations per year;
  • 6,840 respiratory hospitalisations per year;
  • 66,000 active asthma cases per year.

The numbers were formulated by scaling the most recent research on New Zealand vehicle-emission impacts, the New Zealand HAPINZ 3.0 study, to the Australian population.

While significant public funds are rightly spent raising awareness for the accident road toll, traffic pollution causes ten times more premature deaths than road accidents, which killed 1,123 people in 2021.

Recent international evidence tells us traffic emissions are associated with far greater health consequences than previously thought.

Figures used by policy makers to date are far lower, according to available information, with none estimating more than 2,000 premature deaths per year in Australia.

Other health consequences include a range of cardio-respiratory diseases including lung cancer and childhood asthma, as well as adverse birth outcomes and diabetes.

Children and unborn babies are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution.

Those chronically exposed to traffic pollution are far more likely to have asthma, respiratory infections, and even stunted lung growth and organ damage.

These health effects are caused by a mix of pollutants including fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – tiny solid particles that can be inhaled and even enter the bloodstream – and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

Currently, Australian estimates do not factor in NO2 gas emissions, with the result that previous figures significantly underestimate the real health impacts and no current robust estimates of vehicle-emission impacts exist to guide policy makers.

Ms Walters said: 'There are short and long-term changes we can make to mitigate the effects of traffic pollution in Australia and dramatically improve health outlooks, as well as the economic burden of emissions-related health impacts.

‘With these high levels of mortality and morbidity impacts, we look to our leaders to make the decisions required to reduce the social, economic and human costs of vehicle emissions.’

While every other country in the OECD has standards for the amount of pollution new vehicles can emit, Australia has some of the most polluting vehicles in the world.

Australia is the only OECD country without new vehicle carbon dioxide standards and lags a decade behind European standards for fuel quality and vehicle emissions.

Roland Sapsford, CEO of the Climate and Health Alliance, said: ‘Pollution from cars and trucks is killing people, making us sick and changing our climate. Australians deserve urgent action to clean up what comes out of tailpipes, and make it easier for more people to leave the car at home.

‘We can have cleaner air, safer streets and healthier communities for everyone, at the same time as we reduce climate-changing emissions.’

Melbourne Climate Futures has released a position statement, which calls for urgent action as a result of these new figures, and has been endorsed by Asthma Australia, the Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA) and Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA), as well as the Australian Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance (ACDPA), which includes the Lung Foundation, the Heart Foundation, the Cancer Council and Diabetes Australia.