Clean, fresh air might come free, but a bit of money helps you access it.
Victorians living in poverty (or experiencing some other form of disadvantage) are more likely to breath polluted, low-quality air – and get sick as a result.
The reasons are varied.
To begin with, getting by on a low-income means you’re more likely to live in a poor quality house.
Chances are you can’t afford draught proofing or expensive air filtration systems to protect you when the air outside is hazy, smokey or polluted. (You’re probably renting anyway, making property upgrades even more difficult.)
You’re also more likely to rely on cheap wood-fired heating, the kind that fills your (low-quality) home with fine particles of airborne pollutants. In the short term, these make your eyes itchy and irritate your throat. Over the years, they can cause lung disease, heart complications, emphysema, asthma and cancer.
Not having a lot of cash also means you’re probably priced out of leafy suburbs where there’s fewer smelly factories, less traffic pollution and more trees and parks to purify the air.
But the trend isn’t just limited to city areas. Gippsland’s Latrobe Valley, with its coal-mines and coal-fired power stations, is one of Australia’s 12 worst areas for air pollution. Surprise surprise, it’s also one of the poorest areas of Victoria.
Air quality is only just being acknowledged as social justice issue.
When environmental indicators were included in the Jesuit Social Services’ Dropping Off the Edge research project for the first time in 2021, they immediately revealed a strong link between air pollution and disadvantage.
So what’s to be done? The good news is Victoria has some immediate and straightforward steps it can take to address this problem.
In fact, the Victorian Parliament’s cross-party Environment and Planning Committee just released a 312-page report into the health impacts of air pollution, which includes 35 recommendations.
(VCOSS made a submission to this parliamentary inquiry and appeared before a hearing.)
The Committee wants the Victorian Government to introduce a rebate scheme that makes household air filters cheaper for people without much money and who are living in bad health, such as with a chronic lung condition. (Recommendation 16)
A rebate scheme would help people stay safe on days of bad air quality, and protect themselves from smoke caused by bushfires and industrial fires.
It would also work well in tandem with another program suggested by the Committee, to help low-income Victorians pay for an air quality/air flow assessment of their home, and make the necessary improvements. (Recommendation 15)
The Committee goes even further, urging the Victorian Government to look at how “clean air shelters” could be established across the community, perhaps in partnership with local councils. (Recommendation 17)
This recommendation echoes VCOSS’s longstanding call for a network of climate-adapted community facilities to help people shelter from the heatwaves, bushfire smoke and other weather extremes that climate change keeps throwing at us.
These refuges would be particularly important for people experiencing homelessness. To be most effective and inclusive, they would also need to be fully accessible and open for extended hours.
Of particular concern is polluted air making our kids sick. The Committee is proposing so-called ‘clean air zones’ around schools and childcare centres. While much of the detail is yet to be worked out, the Committee heard that rules to reduce car idling and encourage staggered drop-offs, and the planting of more tress, might all be part of the solution.
Planning laws might also need to be modernised so schools and childcare centres aren’t built so close to known pollution hot spots.
The Victorian Government should embrace the simple, common-sense recommendations made by the Environment and Planning Committee.
Together, they will help ensure every Victorian has access to fresh air, regardless of where they live or how much money they earn.
Breathing easy? It’s not too much to ask.