The case for cleaner indoor air is hampered by high up-front costs, but after years of pandemic and the pollution caused by bushfires, the need should be clearer than ever. By Blair Williams.

The high cost of poor air quality

A cleaner wearing a face mask stands in the forecourt of Parliament House, Canberra They are surrounded by an orange haze caused by bushfires.
A cleaner in the forecourt of Parliament House, Canberra, on January 5, 2020.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

In the summer before the pandemic, tens of thousands of Australians donned face masks and stayed indoors to avoid choking on the acrid bushfire smoke that blanketed the east coast.

Parliament House was shrouded in smoke and Canberra claimed the title of having the world’s worst air quality, peaking at 7700 PM2.5. For this measure of particulate matter, anything above 200 is considered hazardous. Hospital admissions for asthma and cardiovascular or respiratory issues skyrocketed on the days when air quality was at its worst. The 417 smoke-related deaths far eclipsed the 34 deaths directly caused by the fires.

The 2019-20 bushfires exposed how Australian homes and public buildings offer little protection from outdoor pollutants. The pandemic has since revealed that they are equally ineffective in protecting us from the transmission of airborne pathogens, such as SARS-CoV-2.

We could soon be facing both crises simultaneously, with climate models warning of a potential “super El Niño” developing later this year. Will Australia be ready?

Under clearer skies last month, experts in fields ranging from medicine to architecture, engineering and occupational health and safety gathered with politicians at Parliament House. They took their places at conference tables surrounding a cluster of air purifiers in the high-ceilinged senate committee room. Many wore N95 masks. All were dedicated to the cause of what Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton described as a “clean-air revolution”.

The hosts for this inaugural Clean Air Forum were the co-chairs of the Parliamentary Friends of Preventive and Public Health, Dr Mike Freelander and Dr Helen Haines, and Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah.

In his opening remarks, Australia’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, framed the challenges: “The question is no longer if clean air is important, but how clean is good enough? And how do we measure that? And [in] what way and [at] what cost is society prepared to achieve it?”

The case for clean air is more contentious than it sounds. Critics have claimed that upgrading air quality would be prohibitively expensive. Up-front costs can be a hurdle but, as Jason Monty, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Melbourne, told the forum, it is a “huge myth that ventilation is a negative cost to the market … Considering the many benefits, such as reducing energy use and strengthening health, the payback period is now pretty short.”

The cost-benefit analysis surely belongs in the federal budget, which Treasurer Jim Chalmers is preparing to hand down on May 9. A clean-air strategy poses solutions to the budget’s top-line concern, the fight against inflation, as Dominic Meagher points out with respect to the widespread transmission of Covid-19. The deputy director and chief economist at the John Curtin Research Centre tells The Saturday Paper that “any increase in sick workers implies a reduction in the labour supply. Reducing supply without reducing demand is inflationary.”

Meagher argues that improving air quality to curb the virus can spare both the health budget and our nation’s finances. “Every 1 per cent increase in demand for health spending implies over $2 billion per year, including about $1 billion from the federal budget,” he says. “If every reinfection increases the risk of long Covid and other chronic diseases, this will have drastic consequences for our fiscal outlook.”

Chalmers, whose support for a focus on “wellbeing” in our national accounts is well documented, asserted in The Monthly this year that we must “build something better” in the face of these looming crises by fostering a more inclusive and resilient economy, reimagining private markets as generators of public value, and identifying public-private co-investment and collaboration as powerful tools. He critiqued the previous treasurer for failing to learn “the key lesson of the pandemic: healthy economies rely on healthy people and communities”.

Chalmers may as well have been building the case for a clean-air revolution, the success of which would depend on private and public investment of the sort outlined in Chalmers’ values-based capitalist manifesto.

So far there has been little effort to mandate the systemic changes needed to clean indoor air. Australians have taken matters into their own hands, investing in personal air purifiers and masks to find relief from toxic bushfire smoke or protection from a novel virus.

This is the least effective of the three options that Guy Marks, Scientia professor at UNSW Sydney identifies for managing indoor air quality. “The most efficient are those that prevent emissions at the source. The next best is to clean the air … The last and final resort is to wear an N95 mask,” Marks says.

The responsibility must shift from the individual to the collective, says Nancy Baxter, head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health. “Clean air is a public good,” she told the forum, “so the government must be involved in this journey.”

Three overarching and cost-effective solutions are relatively low-hanging fruit. First, use and adapt existing OHS frameworks and building regulations to incorporate indoor air quality (IAQ) standards in all public indoor spaces and workplaces. The federal government could establish a consistent, national regulatory infrastructure for clean air, forcing the market through policy legislation.

Second, measure the air for CO2 – a proxy for ventilation level – and display live ratings of indoor air quality. This will give consumers more choice, says Nicholas Burt, chief executive of peak body the Facility Management Association of Australia. “If you go into a shopping centre and can see a live rating of how good the indoor air quality is, then it could further incentivise the market to do better,” he tells The Saturday Paper.

Third, fix existing mechanical systems so they meet the newly legislated IAQ standards, and begin to retrofit both public and commercial buildings. Geoff Hanmer, architect and OzSAGE ventilation chair, estimates it would cost $13 billion over five years to retrofit all schools and aged-care facilities – that’s less than 5 per cent of Australia’s annual infrastructure budget. Co-investments from the private sector would further reduce the costs and provide public value, in line with Chalmers’ proposed partnerships.

Clean indoor air was an important issue long before Covid-19 catalysed debate. Pre-pandemic, poor IAQ cost Australia more than $12 billion a year due to ill health and lost productivity. Good IAQ reduces transmission of respiratory diseases as well as exposure to pollutants such as bushfire smoke, allergy-causing moulds and pollen, bacteria and fungi. This would reduce sick leave, decrease asthma attacks and cut hospitalisations.

Well-ventilated indoor spaces improve concentration and learning. Schools are notorious for stuffy classrooms, with high levels of CO2 that can cause drowsiness, headaches and lethargy. Research has shown that improving IAQ significantly improves academic achievement by increasing attention-span, cognition and learning ability, while ensuring fewer missed days of school. One study found that student maths, science and English test scores improved by up to 0.5 per cent for each litre-per-second increase in the ventilation rate per person.

Moreover, there are jobs to be created in the campaign for cleaner air, whether in retrofitting existing buildings or in innovation. Colin Kinner, founder of Clean Air Accelerator, a non-profit startup, likens the concept of a clean-air revolution to the beginnings of the internet, which created many high-paying jobs – and clean air is even more essential to our daily lives.

Retrofitting buildings to improve ventilation can increase energy efficiency, as well as save money in the long run. Dominique Hes, zero carbon buildings lead at the City of Melbourne, found that changing a ventilation system to allow fresh air coming in from floor level to push stale air out through ceiling vents improved air quality and decreased Covid-19 transmission by 83 per cent and reduced energy consumption by 10-20 per cent. She is now tasked with retrofitting 80 office buildings in Melbourne annually, which is expected to create 12,000 jobs and save $2.7 billion in lost productivity and $1.8 billion in energy costs.

As global heating presents us with ever-greater challenges, future-proofing office buildings and indoor public spaces – especially schools and aged-care facilities – should be central to a wellbeing budget. The “gas-fired recovery” promised by the Morrison government must be replaced by a clean-air revolution that aligns far better with Australia’s broader transition to clean energy and to our self-actualisation as a “nation of innovators”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 29, 2023 as "Getting our ducts in a row".

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