Air pollution is the single greatest environmental cause of preventable disease and premature death in the world today. It ranks alongside unhealthy diets, inadequate physical activity, and tobacco smoking, as a major global risk factor for mortality. Globally, air pollution is responsible for approximately 7 million premature deaths each year. In Australia annual mortality is conservatively estimated to be more than 3,200 with a cost greater than AUD $6.2 billion from years of life lost. However, the full health and social impacts are much more extensive. This report explains why the effects of air pollution are so far reaching and, equally, why coordinated action to make air safer is one of the best investments in Australian health.
COVID-19, like other respiratory viral infections, is primarily transmitted in small airborne particles that carry the virus and are emitted during all human activities related to respiration (1). Particles are emitted during speech, coughing, sneezing, exercise or also quiet breathing. The particles are small enough to remain airborne for prolonged periods, especially in poorly ventilated indoor environments, and be transmitted long distances. Hence, the presence of one or more people with COVID-19 in an indoor environment places all persons who share the air in that indoor space at risk of infection. Airborne transmission is the main mechanism of transmission of COVID-19, including ‘super spreader’ events (1,2). Despite confusing and sometimes misleading public health messages (3), preventive measures to mitigate the airborne transmission of COVID-19 became an important and effective part of the public health response to COVID. These measures included mask mandates, restrictions on indoor gathering, requirements for enhanced ventilation for indoor settings, and air filtration in health care facilities, schools, aged care facilities and other high risk indoor environments. However, these were essentially emergency measures. The most effective interventions to reduce the severity and cost of future pandemics involve continuously improving indoor air quality (IAQ) for all Australians, with co-benefits for reducing the health and economic burden of indoor air pollution more generally.
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Given the Centre’s remit, our response to the Strategy is provided in the context of our core focus on clean air. In principle, the Centre supports much of the Strategy content. The Strategy rightly attempts to tackle issues related to the health sector as an energy user and greenhouse gas emissions contributor, as well as the broader need for the health sector to advocate for and engage on programs which relate to public health protection from the effects of climate change. However, each of these require very different solutions, policies, programs and actions. The Centre feels that the Strategy, in draft form, omits important detail from both of these domains.
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