"The deficiencies in the regulation of point-source air pollution – particularly airborne lead and sulphur-dioxide emissions from mining and smelting sites – in Australia, and the health impacts that stem from them, constitute a significant problem of environmental justice," Dobbie told environmentalresearchweb. "We chose to highlight this issue for the purpose of advocating for a significantly improved regulatory regime for air pollution, which would provide adequate and equal protection for all Australians, regardless of their place of residence or socio-economic background."

Currently, Australia doesn't have a clear piece of national legislation on air pollution. The nation's states and territories have different regimes, made up of either legislation or policy documents with varying degrees of enforceability. In addition, individual industrial sites can obtain pollution licences enabling them to emit more pollutants than the state regulation level.

"As a student of environmental law, you soon realize that the vast majority of environmental laws do not operate to protect the environment, but rather to permit a socially acceptable level of environmental destruction," said Dobbie. "While it is arguable that a certain amount of environmental damage is necessary to enable social and economic development, it is our strong view that this argument cannot be maintained when that environmental damage begins to impact upon human health. This is especially so when such damage has a significantly higher impact on certain members of society, as opposed to the general population."

Today's air-pollution standards tend to be regional and based on averages over time. This doesn't account for local problems near high-emitting sites or short spikes following a pollutant release. Legacy pollution can also damage health as pollutants typically build up in the environment over time.

"The current regulatory regime for air pollution in Australia is inadequate to protect human health," said Dobbie. "There is no consistent overarching system of regulatory protection, instead each individual Australian jurisdiction contributes its own hotchpotch of emission standards, which cover different substances and are often inconsistent with standards provided in other jurisdictions. Moreover, these standards are rarely in line with the world's best-practice standards, as established by the World Health Organisation, and lack the comprehensiveness and cohesion of air-pollution regimes established in other countries, such as the Clean Air Act in the United States."

Dobbie and Green examined lead and sulphur-dioxide pollution for two case studies – Mount Isa in north-west Queensland and Port Pirie in South Australia. Because both communities contain less than 25,000 inhabitants, there is no mandatory requirement for monitoring stations. Both towns have a relatively high proportion of low-income inhabitants and Indigenous Australians.

Mount Isa, population around 21,000, is one of the biggest mining communities in Australia, and is near the largest copper–lead–zinc mining operation in the country, which employs 5000 people and contributes around AU$1 billion to the economy each year. The site emits lead, sulphur dioxide, arsenic and cadmium into the air, and there is significant environmental lead pollution in the region. Around 11.3% of 400 local children aged between 1 and 5 years, sampled in a study between 2006 and 2007, had lead levels in their blood above 10 μg dL–1, the current health guideline. What's more, asthma mortality rates are 322% higher in Mount Isa than the rest of the state.

Port Pirie and its surrounding districts have 17,500 inhabitants. The town is also home to a major lead smelter that provides around 2500 jobs and employs 15% of the local workforce. Around 23% of children in Port Pirie under the age of four have blood lead levels higher than 10 μg dL–1.

"In light of the above [health impacts], and in the absence of any evidence indicating that the industrial facilities at Mount Isa and Port Pirie are operating in contravention of the pollution limits set in their operating licences, it appears that the current legal standards at which these facilities operate are not adequate to prevent pollution at levels harmful to human health," write Dobbie and Green in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

The researchers reckon there are at least three discrete concerns relating to the current licencing system: non-onerous emission thresholds for polluting industry; temporal averaging thresholds masking emission spikes; and ineffective penalties for breaching licence agreements.

As a result, Dobbie and Green are calling for "a new national regulatory regime for air pollution that establishes air-pollution standards that are legally binding across all of Australia, cover all relevant air-borne pollutants, are based on scientific evidence in relation to health impacts, consider the impacts of high-intensity short-term emission spikes, are not able to be weakened via the grant of pollution licences for individual industrial sites, and most importantly, provide equal and adequate protection for all Australians regardless of their place of residence or socio-economic background".

Now, the researchers intend to highlight the findings of their study via presentations to both the research and legal communities, to enable stronger air-pollution laws to be developed in Australia; negotiations regarding the National Clean Air Agreement are ongoing. "Our next step is to quantify the level of disparity of specific toxic emissions at sites of socio-cultural disadvantage in other states and territories," said Green. "In this way, we can better pinpoint which communities are burdened with the highest costs to their health from the social and environmental externalisation of air pollution."

Dobbie and Green reported their findings in ERL as part of the ERL Focus on Environmental Justice: New Directions in International Research.

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