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Thursday, 12 November 2015
Page: 13165

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (Wills) (11:57): Last year I indicated my intention to personally devote more parliamentary attention to health issues, and the scandalous revelation that Volkswagen deliberately modified the engine management systems in their diesel vehicles in order to cheat the regulators and their customers has highlighted the well-known hazards of diesel exhaust pollution, a matter often ignored by governments in this country.

Diesel engines produce around 20 times the mass of hazardous oxides of nitrogen produced by a petrol engine of similar power, as well as large amounts of carcinogenic soot particles. Following considerable evidence of harm caused by those pollutants, in 1998 the California Environmental Protection Agency identified diesel exhaust as a 'toxic air contaminant' with the potential to cause cancer, premature death and other serious health problems. That 1998 decision was based on over 30 epidemiological studies that demonstrated that people regularly exposed to diesel exhaust had a 40 per cent increase in the incidence of such disorders. Based on 2006 to 2008 emissions in a population roughly double that of Australia, diesel exhaust was found to have contributed each year to approximately 2,000 premature deaths in that state, with an uncertainty of approximately plus or minus 400.

Of course, no-one is going to deliberately expose children to oxides of nitrogen to see if they develop asthma, but anecdotal evidence suggests that oxides of nitrogen from diesel exhaust may be responsible for the onset of asthma in children in areas with large numbers of diesel truck movements. Despite the difficulties of demonstrating a causal link between diesel exhaust and asthma, a 2004 study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology of children exposed to oxides of nitrogen produced by unflued gas heaters in New South Wales schools and homes provides persuasive evidence of an association between exposure to oxides of nitrogen and the respiratory health of children with asthma. Anecdotal evidence that diesel exhaust may be causing an epidemic of asthma or that the Californians declared diesel exhaust a toxic air contaminant in 1998 should be sufficient to encourage the government to investigate this issue more closely. If not, then surely the blunt 2012 statement that 'Diesel engine exhaust causes lung cancer in humans' by Dr Christopher Portier, the chairman of the Working Group of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a subsidiary of the World Health Organization, should be a matter of some concern. Dr Portier continued:

Given the additional health impacts from diesel particulates, exposure to this mixture of chemicals should be reduced worldwide.

While the World Health Organization has warned that diesel exhaust is comparable to cigarette smoke in carcinogenicity, under the Howard Liberal government the consumption of diesel fuel increased by approximately 20 per cent as diesel trucks replaced freight trains, railway lines were torn up, and in New South Wales over 100 pollution-free electric locomotives were cut up for scrap.

In contrast, and in response to the need to reduce carbon dioxide and toxic emissions from burning diesel, the rest of the world is rapidly electrifying its railways and governments worldwide have undertaken a massive expansion of high-speed electric train services and electric rail freight. For instance, China began its high-speed electric train services in 2007 and by 2014 had 20,380 kilometres of high-speed electric passenger and freight lines. It is still building new lines. In the UK, nine rail companies operate high-speed electric trains; and Europe is covered in a sufficiently dense network of high-speed trains such that airline services have all but disappeared over many shorter routes. In the United States, there is a high-speed electric train service running between Washington and Boston and construction of the California High-Speed Rail is underway.

Yet, as we know, thanks in considerable part to the Howard government's refusal to support the Speedrail consortium in 2002, Australia has no high-speed electric trains, with the exception of coastal Queensland and between Sydney and the Blue Mountains and Hamilton and Kiama. All regional railways operate diesel-hauled trains. Surely it is time that Australia catches up with the rest of the world and heeds the warnings of the World Health Organization.