Exhausted: the breathtaking cost of living near a freight route

By Sasha Gattermayr, James Costa, Jade Murray and Helena Morgan

Glen Yates is 46 years old with two children, his youngest still in primary school. He doesn’t smoke and is of average weight, but recently he’s been diagnosed with a suite of health problems, including asthma. 

“I had some issues with my heart, which then led to finding a blood clot in one of my lungs,” he says.

Glen’s house in the Melbourne suburb of Yarraville is located 20 metres off Somerville Road, one of the main residential freight routes that has earned this section of the inner western suburbs the label “truck corridor”.

Chronic illnesses such as Glen’s are consistent with those caused by exposure to diesel exhaust. Where he lives in the City of Maribyrnong, road freight travelling to and from the Port of Melbourne is estimated at 11,000 trucks a day, according to a state government-commissioned report

By 2050 it is estimated to reach 34,000 a day.

Experts have warned for some time that if international air quality standards aren’t met, we will face a preventable public health emergency. Global warming is making it worse.

A glimpse into the future 

During the 2020 bushfires, Melburnians saw what a future with hazardous air quality looks like. On one hazy day during this time, the city had the worst air quality in the world.This is one way the problem will worsen as the planet warms. A 2013 study published in peer-reviewed clinical journal Chest shows that climate change influences weather events such as bushfires, heavy rainfall and thunderstorms; weather conditions that increase levels of particulate matter and worsen respiratory problems such as asthma.

Atmospheric chemist Robyn Schofield says Australia isn’t taking the “easy” steps to mitigate air pollution.

“For our developed economy, we’re not doing the right things… and that costs us a large amount of money in terms of health,” said the Associate Dean of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Melbourne.

A timeline of missed deadlines and delays

Governments know this, yet have been slow to act. 

Why? COVID 19 shifted urgent political and popular attention to other aspects of air quality, such as ventilation. Ignoring an invisible enemy is not an option for residents of Maribyrnong, whose kids inhale polluted air so the rest of us can get our imports. 
But it is an option for government. An investigation by the Centre for Advancing Journalism, Right Now and The Age has pieced together a timeline of pledges by the Andrews government to tackle the inner west air hazards, against its record of delivery. The result is a series of missed deadlines, delays and dilutions over years, of researchers gagged and policies recycled in the run-up to the November state election.

Despite the return of the government with an increased majority in the lower house, the ALP experienced a dangerous swing against it in the inner-west seat of Footscray, where the local member experienced a whopping 12 per cent drop in primary vote. The swing was widely interpreted as a sign those in historically working-class suburbs, previously ultra-safe seats, felt angry and overlooked.

Leading respiratory expert Louis Irving from the Royal Melbourne Hospital says when it comes to vulnerable people’s exposure to air pollution, we have reached a tipping point.

“It’s already a crisis. [Those vulnerable are] the very young, the very elderly, people with chronic heart or lung disease, pregnant people.”

Respiratory expert Louis Irving from the Royal Melbourne Hospital

Breaking down the air we breathe

Air pollution is complex, but its effect on humans can be explained simply. In urban areas, the air we breathe is polluted with damaging chemicals caused by industry emissions, construction debris, coal-fired energy plants, bushfire smoke, wood heaters and vehicle exhaust. 

The most harmful air pollutant is particulate matter, made up of toxic chemicals, black carbon and heavy metals like mercury. Particulates are inhaled into the lungs and absorbed straight into the bloodstream. 

From there, they can become lodged in tissue and organs.

The smaller the particle, the harder it is to measure and the more harmful it is to human health. Coarse particulate matter (PM10) is 10 micrometres in diameter and comes mostly from organic matter like dust, while PM2.5 is four times smaller and most often produced by vehicle engines. 

PM1 and PM0.1 are ultrafine particulate matter and cannot be measured by the Victorian Environment Protection Agency’s monitoring stations. Diesel exhaust contains a cocktail of particulate matter, 80-95 per cent of which is ultrafine. The World Health Organisation stated that no amount of exposure to PM2.5 or smaller was safe.
In 2019, 1,780 Australians died prematurely from PM2.5 vehicle emissions, according to the State of Global Air. That is 49 per cent more than the annual road toll.

A melting pot for air pollution

The inner west of Melbourne is a melting pot for air pollution. Eighteen per cent of the land is industrially zoned, which means dust from construction debris and freight moving along unsealed roads on building sites fills the air with coarse particulate matter.

But the biggest problem the area faces is the ultrafine particles from diesel trucks. Freight trucks use main residential streets such as Somerville and Williamstown to access the Port of Melbourne, which pours particulates into nearby houses, schools and childcare centres.

The WHO standard for hourly PM2.5 concentration is 15 micrograms per cubic metre. In his Yarraville home, Glen’s air monitors sometimes show spikes between 40 and 70 micrograms per cubic metre. That’s up to four times more than the recommended levels.

Community activist groups like Save Willy Road and the Maribyrnong Trucking Action Group (MTAG) have been campaigning on this issue for decades. Over the years they have watched as other countries regulated dirty diesel engines, “greened” their ports, tightened vehicle-based emissions targets and decarbonised transport networks. 

Victoria has one of the oldest trucking fleets in the OECD. According to an August 2022 Grattan Institute report, 14 per cent of the fleet was manufactured before 1996, and emits 60 times the particulate matter of a new truck. The state has also spent billions on new road infrastructure that experts say will worsen existing pollution problems, and rejected affordable filtration technology for freeways and tunnels that would remove harmful particulate matter from the air. 

In late October, then Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio pledged $15 million to subsidise truck modernisation, with truck owners to receive $20,000 to upgrade their vehicle. Finally, some good news for local residents? 
Not so fast, said MTAG president Martin Wurt, who questioned if the modest funds would really get the oldest and most-polluting trucks off streets or just subsidise more profitable operators who already invest in fleet upgrades. An electric vehicle start-up recently estimated it cost $150,000 to convert an older diesel semi-trailer into an electric truck.

“Does [the pledge] include scrappage?” Wurt asked. “If you upgrade your truck, what happens to the old one? Does that get sold on and someone else is going to drive a crappy old truck?”

A spokesperson from the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA) did not respond to questions about details of the truck modernisation scheme, including scrappage provisions.

The numbers don’t lie

Clear air may be at a premium, but what Victoria does have in abundance is data. 

In 2018, a group of experts and residents was formed by the Andrews government to focus on community concerns. The Inner West Air Quality Community Reference Group (CRG) was given two years and $60,000 to produce a report detailing the air pollution problems the inner west faced and their solutions. 

What they found was far worse than expected.

The City of Maribyrnong has a population that skews young, with a median age of 35, compared to the state average of 38, according to 2021 Census data. Yet Maribyrnong residents are being hospitalised with respiratory and cardiovascular issues in staggeringly high numbers compared to the rest of Australia, according to Deakin University research.

Hospital admissions for heart failure, stroke, asthma, heart and pulmonary diseases well exceeded the Australian average, the research, led by child health expert Dr Kate Lycett and cited by the reference group, shows.

In 2018 (the same year the CRG was formed), then Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio announced a $1.2 million Clean Air Strategy to be released the following year. Its centrepiece summit of 160 community representatives, environment groups and experts gathered in August of that year to discuss air pollution issues and solutions. 

It didn’t end there. With the Clean Air Strategy pending and the CRG preparing to release its report after two years of research, the State Parliament’s upper house announced a third public fact-finding mission in February 2020: an inquiry into the health impacts of air pollution in Victoria.

The Environment and Planning Committee’s inquiry received 145 submissions, with many concerns recycled from the Clean Air summit three years earlier. The government was required to respond to the inquiry’s findings within six months. A year passed with no response.

The same inaction followed the CRG report, released in March 2020, which contained 91 recommendations and actions to address poor air quality.

The government responses timeline

One month before the November 2022 state election, the Clean Air Strategy was finally released, three years late. 

It ignored most of the reference group’s comprehensive list of mitigation strategies for the inner west, which included short, medium and long term recommendations with priority emphasis on regulatory reform across state and federal bodies, low-emission vehicle zones, a clean port program and public transport improvements. Instead, the strategy highlighted five pre-existing infrastructure projects to “protect and improve local air quality”. 

The $58m Port Shuttle Network and $125m in associated rail works at the Port itself, will enable freight to be moved to outer Melbourne hubs at Somerton, Altona and Dandenong South hubs via shuttle train rather than truck. At the end of January, the Andrews Government welcomed news a private consortium planned to build a freight terminal at Somerton, about 30 kilometres north of the CBD, to be operational by 2025.But the experts note that the full benefits of the shuttle network to those living near the Port – it is projected to transport 30 per cent of Melbourne’s containers by 2050 — are still a generation away and that other tunnel and road projects underway will make existing pollution problems worse.

The state government claims the beleaguered $10.2 billion West Gate Tunnel Project as a solution, arguing it will funnel 9,000 trucks a day underground that would otherwise use residential streets.

But technical advisor and the former principal scientist at EPA, Dr Lyn Denison, said in 2017 the project would not remove the trucks from residential roads, just push them onto different streets.

Even before the tunnel opens, locals are reporting freight promises being broken at the expense of their health. In December, The Age reported trucks were breaching night curfews and a government promise to rely on rail in the construction of the West Gate Tunnel, with a government spokesperson admitting 2025 trucks including dozens of 26-metre road trains were using Moore Street to get to the project site.

Tom McCarthy and his young family bought a Yarraville house in 2016, attracted to the area by affordable property and a growing community of families.

He is concerned by the lack of action to improve air quality for locals. “[I am] frustrated that the only local childcare centres with any availability for my daughter are close to, if not right on, high-volume truck routes,” Tom says.

“I don’t understand how this is being allowed. It seems plain negligent.”

Yarraville resident Tom

When asked about the government’s preventative health measures, a DEECA spokesperson pointed instead to the broader strategy, adding: “Melbourne’s inner west is benefiting from a health investment of $1.788 million over two years to help children living with asthma.”

The Clean Air Strategy contains a new commitment of $2.84 million for the area to “identify and implement” solutions to particulate matter pollution. Critics note there is no shortage of readily available data, after four years of initiatives – the clean air summit, the CRG report and the parliamentary inquiry – designed specifically to identify solutions for the area’s air pollution.

During an election dominated by public health spending pledges – with up to $9.75 billion committed by Labor and $35 billion by the Coalition – critics say measures to prevent health problems becoming chronic in the first place, like air pollution mitigation, were overlooked in favour of one-off health “announceables”.

In light of a global pandemic, a few years delay delivering air quality reforms might seem reasonable. But experts say those most at risk can’t afford any more delays. 

“Diesel pollution is now known to be a class one carcinogen and implicated in the development of lung cancer, but the lag for that [and] duration of exposure required, is years,” Professor Irving says.

But with asthma, it’s a much quicker turnaround, he says, and traffic pollution both causes new and worsens pre-existing asthma.

“The final whammy [is], if your lungs haven’t fully developed because you’ve been exposed to air pollution as a child, you won’t get your full lung capacity as an adult, and you’ll run the risk of more effective ageing as you get older.”

Respiratory expert Professor Irving 

Air purifiers installed in state schools last year as part of the government’s pandemic response have had a fortuitous effect on the air quality in classrooms on truck thoroughfares. 

These high-efficiency purifiers are capable of washing out particles as small as PM1 from the air, meaning they filter out diesel exhaust and COVID-19 contagions. 

This is important as schools have been identified as particularly sensitive locations. A planned Deakin University “citizen science” initiative, Breathe Melbourne, has been designed to collect data and educate kids and parents about air quality in their suburbs. The project, modelled on a flagship London initiative and originally slated for Term 4, 2022, has now been postponed until Term 1, 2023. 

Two sources with detailed knowledge of the program (who requested anonymity to protect their positions) told Right Now that government officials gagged external communication about the project in the final months of 2022. 

In January, a spokesperson for Department of Health and Human Services referred questions about the project to Deakin University. The university did not respond to inquiries before deadline.

At least 3000 deaths per year are attributed to air pollution in Australia, according to information published in British medical journal The Lancet, and $11-24 billion in health costs.

Glen Yates says we won’t be able to ignore the issue for much longer. 

He says the government will “hold the door [on air pollution data closed] as much as they can, but there’s too much weight behind it now.”

This investigation is part of a series on how climate change will impact the places we live by students at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, co-published by The Age and The Citizen and supported by Right Now.

This article won Democracy’s Watchdogs’ 2022 award for best print/online student investigative reporting.

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