INTERVIEW: Learn why air pollution is the new tobacco - plus 7 tips to reduce your lung cancer risk

If you’re like most Australians, air pollution isn’t usually a topic for discussion at morning coffee catch-ups. After all, it’s not as though we live in Beijing or Delhi, with skylines cloaked in visible smog. There’s nothing to worry about, is there? Well, yes. For Clare Walter – pharmacist, researcher, mother of two girls, and clean air advocate – it’s always the right time to talk about clean air, because she’s on a mission to mount a public awareness campaign about the detrimental health consequences of air pollution. Even in Australia.

Actually, we’re at a point now where the evidence can’t be ignored. Think back in time, when we could no longer turn a blind eye to the link between cigarette smoke and lung cancer; well, we’re at that stage now with air pollution. When you drill down, the stats are pretty frightening. In 2015, five Australians died daily from related illnesses, including cardiac arrest, stroke and lung cancer. Research also suggests links with bladder cancer, Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes, and respiratory infections in children and the elderly. Exposure during pregnancy could also lead to lower IQ and ADHD. The experts still don’t know the full extent of the impact, but they’re learning more about the cause.

You see, our air is polluted by trillions of ‘ultrafine’ particles that are emitted from all vehicles, even new cars. You can’t see or smell them, but their tiny size makes them especially dangerous. When inhaled, these particles are small enough to pass from the lungs into the bloodstream and central nervous system, lodging deep inside the brain, heart and other organs. They also penetrate the skin and spread via the lymphatic system.

Ultrafine particles are most predominant in diesel emissions, which is especially alarming given that 20% of our vehicles are now powered by diesel. Many drivers thought they were doing the right thing, because improved fuel efficiency appeared ‘greener’. But actually, the rush for diesel has harmed millions of Australians – and it’s far worse for anyone living or working near a busy road, including children in schools and childcare centres.

As an example, the City of Maribyrnong in Melbourne’s inner west – between the port and container yards – records the highest concentration of trucks, numbering 21,000 daily. And guess what? The rate of childhood asthma hospital admissions in Maribyrnong is double the national rate. Also, pollution affects the development of children’s lungs, which can lead to cardio-respiratory diseases later in life.  The really worrying news for Maribyrnong is that port activity is set to triple over the next decade, which means even more trucks on the road.

So, without a doubt, this is an issue that deserves our attention – and Clare is doing all she can to raise awareness.

Clare is one of the most passionate, persuasive and articulate people I’ve ever met, and after that very first coffee, over a playdate at a mutual friend’s house, I knew she’d be perfect interview material. At the time, she stunned us with her scary stats on air pollution and the impact on our health – in amongst our conversations on school-yard politics and the best banana bread recipe.

So, twelve months later, here we are, finally sitting down for another cup of tea and an ‘official’ interview. And in the meantime, there have been plenty of informal chats at the school gate, about her latest government submissions or community presentations – and lately, radio interviews.

So how did Clare become such a passionate spokesperson for the clean air movement? Interestingly, there were several different events that occurred simultaneously in 2013, propelling her to act. Firstly, at an international level, diesel was declared a class 1A carcinogen for lung cancer, in the same bracket as cigarette smoke and asbestos. To achieve a class 1A status, there’s a definite, direct link. Plus, there’s a probable link to other cancers, including bladder and skin cancers.

Also, around that same time, Clare returned from maternity leave, working as a pharmacist at Peter MacCallum’s lung cancer clinic. Understandably, she was shocked at the number of younger female patients who had small children, the same age as her own. What’s more, these women had no obvious history of exposure to cigarette smoke. In fact, over a period of three years, 37% of female lung cancer patients at the clinic had never smoked. Many of these non-smoking women were diagnosed with adenocarcinoma, which is the type of lung cancer most strongly linked with air pollution.

Closer to home, Clare had concerns, too. At that stage, she lived in Collingwood with her husband and two young daughters. The proposed East-West link included an underground freight route with two vent stacks – one in Flemington and one in Collingwood. The Collingwood vent stack was planned half way between Clare’s house and their local primary school. The idea of exposing her children to that level of air pollution was horrifying, especially now that diesel was a known carcinogen, and she saw the victims in her clinic each week.

Plus, her youngest daughter attended a childcare centre on Hoddle Street: a major road with a steady stream of traffic, and therefore, constant fuel emissions. As many parents know, securing childcare options can be difficult, and you take what you can get. But when Clare noticed her daughter wheezing terribly with asthma, and broached the subject with other parents, she heard anecdotal evidence of high asthma rates for children at the same centre.

So, Clare requested air monitoring at the childcare centre. They happily complied, but then wouldn’t release the results – an ominous sign. It wasn’t until Clare submitted a freedom of information request that she finally learned that the air pollution levels breached the EPA and WHO thresholds; in fact, the average pollution levels were 40% higher than the Australian legislated benchmark. Worryingly, this exposure has put Clare’s daughter at an increased risk for adenocarcinoma in her lifetime. (But the good news for Clare is that the asthma has practically disappeared since moving to a different house – on a quiet street in a leafier suburb).

So, understandably, these simultaneous events provided the impetus Clare needed to get involved – and from there, she became an advocate for clean air. Anyone who meets Clare will agree that the clean air movement is incredibly lucky to have her support. She’s highly intelligent, articulate, passionate, determined and genuinely concerned – and with her contacts at Peter Mac, and her lawyer husband, she’s well-placed to navigate any barriers or obstacles. But for Clare, this only serves to heighten the challenges that lower socio-economic residents face when they’re confronted with plans for freeways or vent stacks. It’s very hard for them to present their case and mount an argument, let alone influence others.

But it’s a cause worth fighting for: with increased urbanisation, higher density living (all those apartments!) and more vehicles on our roads, the health damage will increase – unless we take steps to reduce emissions.

In the US, drivers face fines if they’re caught idling – that is, leaving their engines running unnecessarily. Idling for 10 seconds wastes more fuel, and releases more emissions, than re-starting the engine. Clare’s often horrified by the number of cars outside Melbourne schools, with engines running, and children walking past. Sometimes, parents even load babies into prams right in front of the exhaust pipes. If you’re wondering what sort of exposure to fumes is enough to cause damage, it depends. According to Clare, “Everyone has different levels of susceptibility. But if you take an asthmatic child out of a car and walk them down to the school gate in front of idling cars, that could be enough to precipitate an attack”. There’s simply no safe level when it comes to air pollution.

Finally, what can you do to improve the quality of the air you breathe?

Here are Clare’s top 7 tips:

1.       Idling any car is bad, but especially diesel cars. Turn off your engine when you’re dropping off your kids outside school or childcare.

2.       Install indoor plants. The following link has a list of plants that will help purify the air you breathe - according to research by NASA. Note, some of these plants are toxic to pets.

3.       Reticulate circulation in your car if you’re on a busy road, or in the Burnley tunnel. This means pressing the little button in your car that recycles the air. A study in Queensland found that total black carbon exposure each day is reduced by 32% percent just by reticulating circulation (black carbon is the worst part of particulate matter).

4.       Take public transport when you can. This means you’re not sitting in traffic, inhaling the fumes around you.

5.       Use your legs instead of your car. Choose your walking route carefully, so you’re minimising your time on major roads. Many studies have been done on ‘active transportation’ and certainly in Melbourne, the benefits of exercising outweigh the negative effects of exposure to pollution.

6.       If you’re in the market for a new car, don’t buy a diesel vehicle.

7.       If you live on a busy road, consider options to reduce the impact – such as a wall between your house and the road, and plant more vegetation.

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Interview by Carmen