In the past, the NEPM standard setting processes in Australia used a variety of frameworks and methods, each with its own merits and disadvantages. Following the successful work undertaken by the Risk Assessment Task Force (RATF) and the Risk Assessment Working Group (RAWG) and subsequently in the application of risk assessment to the development of standards for PM2.5, the absence of an overall agreed methodology was reflected in the considerable debate across the health and environment sectors, and with other key stakeholders during NEPCs standard-setting process.
The main aim of setting NEPM standards is to prevent adverse health impacts from air pollution, and to provide adequate protection for all Australians. Achieving this aim requires a comprehensive knowledge of the health effects of air pollutants. Standard setting in Australia — in particular, the assessment of potential health hazards associated with exposure to air pollution — requires collaboration mainly between the environment and the health sector. Such collaboration has been in place for as long as air quality standards have been set in Australia, but the approach has not always been consistent.
The Standard Setting Working Group (SSWG), which operates under the auspices of the EPHC Air Quality Working Group, was asked to develop an overall framework and methodology for setting air quality standards in the NEPC context. Health experts worked with experts from the environment sector to develop this methodology, with the SSWG being co-chaired by representatives from both sectors. Members were nominated for their demonstrated expertise and experience in, or understanding of:
• epidemiology or toxicology, and in the application of these studies in setting standards
• risk assessment, especially in relation to setting air quality standards
• policy underpinning standard setting
• air quality data.
The objectives of the SSWG are to scope and assess approaches to the derivation of air quality standards in Australia, and to make recommendations on an agreed methodology to the NEPC.
The NEPC requested that the overall standard-setting framework be based on a risk assessment approach. The proposed methodology aims to reach agreement between the health and environment sectors, and consultation with key stakeholders on:
• the level of health protection to be built into standards
• the application of uncertainty or safety factors
• approaches to dealing with non-threshold pollutants
• approaches to exposure assessment
• equity and social justice issues
• application and approaches to cost–benefit analysis.
This paper discusses how health hazards and exposure to air pollutants are assessed, and how risk is characterised. Its purpose is to encourage discussion on the issues, processes and recommendations put forward. The aim is to establish an agreed approach that the NEPC can use to set air quality standards. The feedback provided will help to ensure that the process for setting standards and its outcomes are transparent.
Although the potential for a mixture of air pollutants to impact on health is acknowledged, this document does not provide guidance on how to address potential combined effects from air pollutants in a standard setting process. This is consistent with the current approaches used internationally, where air quality standards are established for individual pollutants.
This paper is available on the EPHC website for comment until 13 August 2010. All submissions will be regarded as public documents unless clearly marked ‘confidential’ and they may be made available to other interested parties, subject to provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 1982. No formal response will be provided on submissions. In the light of the comments received, a method will be developed and presented to EPHC for consideration.
Public consultation meetings will be held in each state and territory in conjunction with the discussion paper on the Ambient Air Quality NEPM Review. Details of these meetings will be posted early in 2010.