Better fuel regulation has had a perverse effect in Sydney and Melbourne. Photo: SuppliedA crackdown on poor fuel quality has inadvertently driven up dangerous ozone levels and is causing an estimated 300 deaths a year across Sydney and Melbourne, a federal government-commissioned report has found.
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The report’s expert authors have called on authorities to act to reverse the phenomenon, and environmental advocates say more must be done to prevent vapours escaping at petrol bowsers, which increases harmful ozone production.

The independent review of fuel quality laws, commissioned by the Department of the Environment, analysed the impact of changes to fuel standards since the introduction of current laws in 2000.

It found that fuel regulation had led to less pollutants and improved health outcomes in both Melbourne and Sydney – with the exception of ozone formation and exposure.

In a perverse effect, a reduction in nitrogen dioxide through improved fuel standards “is contributing to increased ozone production” which has resulted in adverse health outcomes, the report found.

Exposure to daily changes in ozone pollution in Melbourne caused an estimated 465 deaths in the year 2000, rising to 636 in the year 2015 – or 171 additional deaths last year, according to the scenarios modelled.

In Sydney, 617 such deaths were attributed to ozone in the year 2000, rising to 744 last year – an increase of 127 estimated annual deaths.

In the same period, estimated deaths attributable to substances such as nitrogen dioxide and PM2.5, or very fine pollution particles, fell substantially – indicating that laws governing fuel standards are otherwise improving health outcomes.

The modelling showed higher ozone levels also led to more emergency department visits by children with asthma, the report said.

“These increases are thought to be due to the significant decreases in NO2 [nitrogen dioxide]. NO2 is involved in both the formation and removal of ozone from the atmosphere,” it said.

Air quality concern relating to ozone involves high levels at ground level, rather than ozone layer depletion in the stratosphere.

Ground-level ozone particularly affects the elderly, children and people with lung conditions. It can irritate the nose, airways and lungs, and cause coughs, worsened asthma and pain in the chest, ears, eyes, nose and throat.

It is formed when sunlight combines with a chemical mix in the air. Warm, sunny cities with moderate winds are most likely to experience elevated ozone production, and Sydney and Melbourne often experience the highest levels in Australia, the department says.

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

Dr Whelan said these compounds, released when motorists filled up at the bowser and trucks delivered fuel to stations, were a precursor to ozone production. However Australia was lagging badly behind the United States and Europe in regulating them, he said.

A spokeswoman for Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg said the government was considering its response to the independent report. She pointed to a review of legislative instruments made under the act, which was announced in May.

The report was prepared by consultants Marsden Jacobs Associates and Pacific Environment. The scenarios were hypothetical but reflected relevant baselines and air quality changes.

The report recommended that “additional time and resources be dedicated by governments to investigating options to reduce ozone concentration”.

Environment Protection Authority Victoria policy and regulation manager, Dan Keely, said that state has adopted national rules on fuel standards to minimise evaporative emissions.

However an EPA review of Victorian vehicle emissions regulations in 2013 did not support mandatory vapour recovery at service stations, he said.

A NSW EPA spokeswoman said NSW was the first Australian state to introduce recovery of vapours from petrol storage tanks and 96 per cent of petrol stations had complied.

NSW was 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 rule comes into effect in January next year.

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