Air quality in New South Wales

Air quality index (AQI) and PM2.5 air pollution in New South Wales

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How bad is the air quality in New South Wales?

In general, New South Wales air quality is relatively healthy by global standards, in keeping with Australia’s generally healthy air quality. However, NSW air quality can experience extreme air pollution episodes triggered by wildfires and dust storms, which can cause this region’s air to temporarily register as some of the worst air quality in the world. Within Australia, NSW air quality is among the most polluted in the country, and the state suffered particularly dramatic air pollution problems during the severe wildfires of the 2019-2020 summer.

The main pollutants of concern in NSW are particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), and ozone. The NSW Environment Protection Agency (EPA) monitors a range of air pollutants across the state, to measure whether their levels are compliant with Australia’s national air quality standards, known as the National Environment Protection Measures (Air NEPM). The pollutants monitored include particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), sulphur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and visibility. While the majority of these pollutants achieve NSW’s air quality standards, PM and ozone are the pollutants which most frequently exceed their targets, which is why these pollutants are a particular focus for improvement by the NSW EPA.1

How does NSW air quality compare to other states?

Within IQAir’s 2019 World Air Quality Report, New South Wales emerged as the most polluted state in Australia for annual average PM2.5 concentrations. 13 out of the 15 most polluted cities within Australia were located within NSW: this may reflect how NSW was the worst affected state in Australia from the 2019-2020 wildfires.2 The most polluted city for PM2.5 in NSW was Armidale (23 μg/m3), followed by Tamworth (15.2 μg/m3) and Beresfield (13.6 μg/m3). Major New South Wales cities ranked as slightly less polluted, including Newcastle air quality (6th of 17 ranked locations, with annual PM2.5 average of 12.5 μg/m3), Wollongong air quality (12th of 17, with 10.6 μg/m3) and Sydney air quality (13th of 17, with 10.1 μg/m3).3 All but one measured location within NSW averaged an annual PM2.5 concentration exceeding Australia’s NEPM standard for PM2.5, of 8 μg/m3.

Live New South Wales air quality information can be viewed within the dynamic NSW air quality map at the top of this page, which also contains real-time wildfire updates. These can be followed at any time, along with a 7-day New South Wales air quality forecast, using the IQAir AirVisual air pollution app.

What are the health impacts of NSW air pollution?

The health impacts of exposure to New South Wales air pollution can include an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, the aggravation existing respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and increased risk of developing new respiratory disease such as lung cancer.4 Exposure to air pollution can also increase risk of premature death, and shorten life expectancy. Some parts of the NSW population are more vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution than others, including children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with pre-existing health conditions.

In 2016, the annual health impacts of New South Wales air pollution were estimated to result in 520 premature deaths and 6,300 cumulative years of life lost in Sydney; 1,180 hospital admissions in Sydney; and an estimated $6.4 billion (AUD, equivalent to approximately $4.7 billion USD) in health costs in the NSW Greater Metropolitan Region.1 In addition to this, smoke generated by the severe wildfires which affected large areas of Australia during the summer 2019-2020 and most severely affected the state of NSW, were estimated to cause a range of severe health impacts through inhalation by the population.

What are the main sources of New South Wales air pollution?

New South Wales experiences air pollution that comes from human-influenced and natural sources. The main human-influenced sources of NSW air pollution include industry, motor vehicles, smoke from domestic wood heating, and hazard reduction burns and human-caused bushfires.5 The major natural sources of air pollution in NSW are naturally caused bushfires, and dust storms.

Is New South Wales threatened by fire?

Australia has long experienced wildfires during the summer months, with an established fire season. Australia wildfires can be caused either naturally, for example through a lightning strike, or through human intervention: unintentionally, such as an accidental human-made spark, or deliberately, through planned burning or arson. However, during the summer months of 2019-2020, Australia experienced its worst fire season on record.6 Following several months of record-breaking temperatures and drought, the fires of the “black summer” as it came to be known colloquially were particularly devastating, and New South Wales was the worst hit state across all of Australia, followed by its neighbouring state Victoria.7 A staggering 17 million hectares were burned across the states of NSW, Victoria, Queensland, ACT, Western Australia and Southern Australia, while 5.3 million hectares of this (approximately 31%) were burned in NSW alone. This burned land represents 6.7% of the NSW state, and included 2.7 million hectares in national parks (37% of the state’s national park land).8 Similarly, while 3,094 houses were destroyed across these states, 2,439 of those (79%) were burned only in New South Wales.8 After bushfires had broken out in New South Wales in September 2019, around 3 months earlier than the fire season usually starts, these fires were finally extinguished throughout NSW state for the first time 5 months later on 13 February 2020.2

While 33 people were reported to be killed as a direct consequence of the fires, several more suffered negative health impacts as a consequence of the fires’ persistent smoke. In contrast, 400 Australians are estimated to have suffered premature death from smoke inhalation, and 4,000 hospital admissions to have resulted as a consequence.9

What is NSW doing about air pollution?

The New South Wales government’s Environment Protection Agency (EPA) runs a network of air quality sensors around the state. These sensors are located across 5 NSW sub-regions: Sydney, Upper Hunter, Lower Hunter and the Central Coast, Illawarra, and Regional and rural NSW.10 The monitoring network measures pollutants including particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and visibility, in addition to weather parameters such as wind speed and direction, air temperature and humidity. NSW’s state government EPA differs from others within Australia, by including ‘visibility’ as an indicator within its mix of pollutants, while this metric is not included in broader Australia air quality management. Visibility acts as a good indicator of smoke which can arise from wildfires; the high incidence of wildfires affecting the NSW region are one factor that may have influenced visibility’s inclusion within NSW air quality management.

The NSW government, like the rest of Australia, reports its air quality readings to the public using a New South Wales air quality index (AQI). An air quality index is a system used to represent measurements for a range of different air pollutants, into one easy-to-understand indicator of health hazard to the public. However, since November 2020, the state stopped using the nationally influenced New South Wales AQI system to report its data, in favour of instead reporting data across a scale of ‘air quality categories’ (AQC). These categories convert pollutant measurements to a scaled, colour-coded category, from “Good” (green) up to “Extremely poor” (deep red), to quickly convey their related health impacts. When multiple pollutants are being measured, the one with the highest AQC will determine that location’s overall category.11

However, aside from these initiatives, there has been criticism from community groups that the NSW government dropped longstanding plans to increase air quality management in the region in June 2020. The NSW government had begun a public consultation on adopting a state-wide policy to combat air pollution in 2016, holding a clean air summit in Sydney on the topic in 2017. These initial steps were aiming towards developing a 10-year plan, called the ‘Clean Air Strategy’. However, this strategy was never released, and in June 2020 the government confirmed this standalone air quality strategy would be dropped, and air quality objectives would be absorbed into other environmental and industrial workstreams. However, the communities affected by NSW air pollution have criticised this decision, arguing that without an overarching air quality strategy, improvements to air quality are likely to be inadequate.12

Where is the cleanest air in New South Wales?

During 2019, only one New South Wales location included in IQAir’s 2019 World Air Quality Report achieved Australia’s annual target for PM2.5 pollution of below 8 μg/m3: this was the suburb of Kurraba Point in north Sydney, which averaged 6 μg/m3 of PM2.5. The next least polluted locations within NSW, which still however breached Australia’s annual PM2.5 target, were Warriewood (9.1 μg/m3), Shellharbour (9.6 μg/m3), and Kembla Grange (9.9 μg/m3).

+ Article resources

[1] NSW Government. “Consultation paper: Clean Air for NSW”. NSW Government EPA website, 2016.
[2] Ella Torres. “Fires in New South Wales contained for the first time since Australia’s fire season began”. ABC News, February 13, 2020.
[3] IQAir. “2019 World Air Quality Report”. IQAir website, March 18, 2020.
[4] NSW Government. “Health: Who is affected by air pollution?”. NSW Government website, April 30, 2013.
[5] NSW EPA. “NSW State of Environment: Air quality”. NSW EPA website, n.d.
[6] BBC. “Australia fires: Life during and after the worst bushfires in history”. BBC website, April 28, 2020.
[7] BBC. “Australia fires: A visual guide to the bushfire crisis”. BBC, January 31 2020.
[8] Parliament of Australia. “2019-20 Australian bushfires – frequently asked questions: a quick guide”. Parliament of Australia website, March 12, 2020.
[9] John Pickrell. “Smoke from Australia’s bushfires killed far more people than the fires did, study says.” The Guardian, March 20, 2020.
[10] NSW Government. “Air quality monitoring network”. NSW Government website, n.d.
[11] NSW Government. “About the air quality categories”. NSW government website, November 6, 2020.
[12] Lisa Cox. “NSW government abandons plan for air pollution policy after five years of planning”. The Guardian, June 5, 2020.

New South Wales air quality data attribution


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