Diesel Pollution

Did you know that Maribyrnong has Victoria’s highest rate of child hospital admissions for respiratory illness? Or that the asthma rate among Maribyrnong adolescents is 50% higher than the rest of Victoria?

Hospital admissions respiratory mapadolescent asthma rates

Trucks are making us sick. We are already seeing health effects in our community from excess truck traffic and the health issues we are now facing will become a crisis without intervention.

There are countless studies linking trucks, diesel emissions and public health issues, including increased hospital admissions, respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses and mortality. The 2013 Senate inquiry into the health impacts of air quality in Australia heard that air pollution causes more deaths in Australia each year than road accidents.

In May 2014, Environmental Justice Australia released ‘Clearing the Air’, a major report into Australia’s air pollution laws.This report identified Yarraville as one of Australia’s pollution hot spots “with some of the highest diesel pollution levels ever recorded in Australia”.

In 2017, the Social Health Atlas of Australia was released, a comprehensive report looking at health data around Australia. It showed that Yarraville, Seddon and Kingsville had higher rates of death by lung cancer than surrounding suburbs as well as much higher rates of death by cancers.  Interestingly our rates of smoking are low compared to surrounding areas so it’s not cigarettes that are causing to these statistics.

In June 2012, the World Health Organisation classified diesel exhaust as a class one carcinogen. This put diesel exhaust into the same category as other known hazards, such as cigarettes and asbestos. There is no safe level of exposure to diesel exhaust.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of diesel pollution for a number of reasons. They spend more time outdoors than adults and are also more active. They breathe more quickly and breathe proportionately more air than adults – around 50% more per unit of body weight, increasing the amount of particulate matter they breathe. Their lungs and immune system are still developing and exposure early in life means damaged cells have less ability to repair and more time to become cancerous.

Governments have a duty of care to protect the health of citizens against known and preventable health impacts, such as excessive diesel exhaust. To protect the health of residents in Melbourne’s inner west, the Government needs to get trucks off residential streets and away from schools.



Why is diesel pollution so dangerous?

Diesel exhaust is made up of both particulate matter as well as gasses such as nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides.   There are two ways diesel particulate damages our health – the size of the particles and its chemical composition. 

Size: Particulate matter ranges in size from PM10 (at or below 10 micrometres in diameter) to ultrafine particles PM2.5 (at or below 2.5 micrometres) and down to PM1.0 (1 micrometre and smaller). The smaller the particulate matter, the further it penetrates into our bodies. PM10 are what make up the black soot we regularly find on the outside of our houses. Whilst too much of it can overwhelm our lungs and cause damage, our lungs are able to cough it up. It is the ultrafine particles, PM2.5 and PM1.0 that are of greatest concern. Our lungs cannot expel them. They penetrate the walls of our lungs, make their way into the bloodstream and travel around our bodies, even getting into the brain. Once they have lodged themselves into our bodies, they start causing damage and we have limited ability to flush them out.


Composition: Diesel particulate matter acts as a chemical hitchhiker. Chemical toxins attach themselves to the particulates, causing them to be delivered deep within our lungs and bloodstream. These toxins are made up of a dangerous cocktail of at least 450 different compounds including arsenic, benzene dioxins, formaldehyde and the two most carcinogenic chemicals ever discovered, 3-nitrobenzanthrone and 1,8-dinitropyrene.





Health Impacts of Diesel Pollution

Short term symptoms:

  • Dizziness
  • Light-headedness
  • Nausea
  • Coughing, wheezing and phlegm
  • Difficult or laboured breathing
  • Tightness of chest
  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs

Long term symptoms:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Cardiopulmonary disease
  • Lung cancer
  • Inflammation of the lungs and airways
  • Triggering of respiratory conditions such as asthma, bronchitis
  • Respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Lowered resistance to respiratory infection
  • Mutations in chromosomes and damage to DNA
  • Low birth weight/preterm babies
  • Decrease in lung development and lung function in children
  • Premature mortality

Current Studies

  • The World Health Organisation reports evidence that diesel pollution increases the risk of bladder cancer.
  • Research is ongoing on links between diesel exposure and cancers of the larynx, oesophagus and stomach. Studies are also looking at possible links to blood system cancers such as lymphomas and leukaemia’s, including childhood leukaemia.
  • Researchers at both the Harvard School of Public Health in the US as well as Kings College in London are finding links between pre-natal exposure to heavy diesel pollution and increased risk of the baby developing autism and schizophrenia.
  • Researchers at Columbia University’s School of Public Health are finding evidence that pre-natal exposure to high levels of air pollution increases the risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Scientists at the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Spain are finding evidence that air pollution contributes to lower cognitive development in children.
  • Studies are ongoing into changes to DNA induced by breathing diesel exhaust.




EPA air quality monitoring of Francis Street

During 2013 the EPA conducted a year long air quality monitoring program on Francis Street. Air pollution was measured at higher levels than any of the EPA’s other fixed air monitoring stations in residential suburbs of Melbourne.

MTAG has a number of concerns about the monitoring program:

  • PM2.5 tracked above the annual advisory standard. This is particularly concerning when health experts, including the Australian Medical Association claim that our air quality standards do not protect human health.
  • The monitoring station was located on a free flowing part of Francis Street in traffic that is nothing like the stop-start congestion further along Francis Street where the population density is also higher.  The choice of location does not give a clear indication of what residents are actually exposed to on a daily basis.
  • The pollution measured was averaged out over 24 hours. With a night time curfew in place on Francis Street this hides the real pollution levels that people are exposed to during the day.


Watch a video of Associate Professor Louis Irving of the Department of Respiratory and Sleep Medicine at Melbourne University talking about the health effects of exposure to traffic pollution here.


Further information can be found at:

World Health Organisation Regional Office for Europe publication – Effects of air pollution on children’s health and development: a review of the evidence.