Invisible killer: Coal-burning hubs Latrobe, Hunter Valley named among world’s top air pollution hotspots

SYDNEY, 19 Aug 2019 - Some of the world's biggest hotspots for toxic air pollution emissions are in Australia and cover a population of more than two million people, according to NASA satellite data in a new report released today by Greenpeace.

The alarming new report has found that power stations and industries burning coal and oil are responsible for two-thirds of the human-caused toxic sulphur dioxide (SO2) emission hotspots tracked by NASA satellites.

“Coal-burning power stations are fuelling a public health crisis by pumping toxic chemicals into the air, leading to serious health impacts – from asthma to premature death,” Greenpeace Australia Pacific Campaigner, Jonathan Moylan said.

The report comes as state and federal environment ministers are reviewing air pollution standards for sulphur dioxide, which are currently ten times weaker than World Health Organisation guidelines.

Pollution findings from the report include:

  • Australia is ranked 12th on the list of the top-emitting countries for human-caused sulphur dioxide as tracked by NASA satellites.

  • Coal-burning power stations in Australia are licensed to emit up to eight times more sulphur dioxide than old power stations in China.

  • Industrial smelting and the burning of coal are the leading causes of toxic sulphur dioxide pollution in Australia.

  • More than 51 per cent of total human-caused sulphur dioxide emissions in hotspot areas are emitted in regions of high coal consumption across the globe

The biggest source of SO2 pollution in Australia is a complex of mining operations with lead and copper smelters in Mount Isa, Queensland. The other Australian hotspots are all located around coal-burning power stations such as Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, where a group of coal-fired power stations are located just 100km away from Melbourne.

Lake Macquarie, NSW, where the Vales Point and Eraring coal-burning power stations are located, is also in the top 100 air pollution hotspots, followed by the Hunter Valley, which is home to the Liddell and Bayswater power stations.

The Victorian SO2 air pollution hotspot covers a population of over 470,000 people, and the NSW hotspot covers an area of over 1.7 million people, although the impacts from secondary pollution cover a far greater population. [1]

Health findings from the report include:

  • Microscopic pollution from burning coal and oil can penetrate deep into organs and cells, harming every organ in the body

  • Sulphur dioxide pollution reacts to form toxic particles that cause health problems from dementia and fertility problems to heart and lung disease.

  • Toxic sulphur dioxide is one of the main contributors to human death and disease from air pollution across the planet.

“Australian coal-burning power stations are polluting at levels that would be illegal in China and most other parts of the world,”  Moylan said.

“Unchecked air pollution causes over 4000 premature deaths in Australia each year, which is far more than the national road toll. [2]

“Air pollution is the price our communities pay for the Federal Government’s failure to stand up to big polluters. It’s time for state environment ministers to show leadership by championing health-based sulphur and nitrogen dioxide standards, strong pollution limits for industry and speeding up the switch to clean renewable energy.”


Access the report here.

Maps and graphics available here.

[1] Based on report findings and Greenpeace Australia Pacific analysis of ABS data.




Greenpeace Australia Pacific Communications Campaigner, Martin Zavan

0424 295 422 / [email protected]

Greenpeace International Press Desk: [email protected], +31 (0) 20 718 2470 (available 24 hours)