Could fuel quality improvements be killing us?

Tuesday, 13 September, 2016

In news that no-one saw coming, a report commissioned by the federal government has found that a crackdown on poor fuel quality has driven up ozone levels, leading to an estimated 300 deaths a year in Sydney and Melbourne, according to recent postings by Fairfax Media.

The articles suggest that an independent review of fuel quality laws commissioned by the Department of Environment has found that fuel regulation has led to fewer pollutants and improved overall health outcomes in both capital cities, with the exception of ozone formation and exposure. The purpose of the review was to analyse the impact of changes of fuel standards since the introduction of current laws in 2000. The resulting report was prepared by consultants Marsden Jacobs Associates and Pacific Environment and comes in at a whopping 141 pages. It’s available for download here.

Fairfax summarises the findings and says that the reduction in nitrogen attributed to fuel standards is responsible for increased ozone production. It seems that vapours escaping at petrol bowsers are the main culprit.

As opposed to the ozone layer depletion — which became a global concern toward the end of last century — the issue now is with ground-level ozone. At ground level, ozone affects the elderly, children and those with lung conditions. It is known to exacerbate asthma, which can lead to increased numbers of patients presenting to emergency rooms.

The issue arises when sunlight combines with a chemical mix in the air, making warm, sunny cities with moderate winds more susceptible to elevated ozone production.

Fairfax quotes Environmental Justice Australia researcher James Whelan recommending that ozone concentrations should be reduced through better vapour recovery measures at petrol stations, which would limit the emission of so-called volatile organic compounds.

Whelan apparently said that these compounds, which are released when motorists filled up at the bowser and trucks delivered fuel to stations, were a precursor to ozone production. Apparently Australia lags behind the United States and Europe in regulating them.

The article also quotes a NSW EPA spokeswoman who says that NSW was the first Australian state to introduce recovery of vapours from petrol storage tanks and 96% of petrol stations had complied. NSW is also the only state requiring metropolitan service stations that dispense more than 3.5 million litres of petrol a year to capture vapours from fuel tanks when vehicles were refuelled at the pump. The new rule comes into effect in January next year.

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