RPA's Prof Paul Torzillo on WestCONnex's devastating health impacts

Professor Paul Torzillo, Executive Clinical Director and Head of Respiratory Medicine at Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred (RPA) hospital, spoke out about the extensive physical, mental and social health impacts of WestCONnex at a recent public meeting in Camperdown. Here's the video along with the transcript of his talk.

I want to talk about three ways that WestCONnex is bad for health, and and I'll just start with what you've already heard. Which is if you're in the direct path of this, you either lose your home, completely lose your community lose the place you've lived in, and you have to move somewhere generally an incredibly long way away because you don't get enough recompense to live anywhere around where you want to.

The second option is what you've had eloquently described to you with the last talks: just a constant exposure to disruption to your environment, to access, to dust, to noise, to vibration.

And I think you can see in these talks the sort of stress that puts on people. And many people aren't as eloquent as the speakers we've had here today but they get the same degree of stress. That sort of constant life pressure doesn't just lead to upset and anxiety. It has a direct impact on physical health problems as well.

So if you're in the direct path of this then you're definitely going to suffer all the consequences that you've heard and more that you won't have heard about.

But I want to talk a bit about the broader impact of this project and that's really through firstly the contribution that traffic-related air pollution makes to air pollution in general.

In cities like ours, traffic-related air pollution is a major contributor to air pollution. It's probably around 30% and upwards in most cities like ours.

Every major program and project like this around the world leads to more cars and more vehicles coming into cities. It's been very well looked at by a number of research groups. Every single infrastructure project like this leads to more cars and more vehicles coming into cities and you have a greater contribution to air pollution from traffic-related pollution.

Traffic-related pollution – there is a huge amount of evidence that air pollution increases death from cardiovascular disease, that's the leading cause of death in Australia. It leads to increased hospital admissions from heart disease. It leads to increased stroke. It leads to increased respiratory disease, and it leads to increased deaths from respiratory disease. It leads to higher rates of low birth weight in kids.

And there are major reviews by WHO that occur every few years or from groups that are consulted by them and every time one of these reviews occurs the evidence about the strength of the relationship between pollution and bad health get stronger and stronger. There's no question about this.

And I think what's important is that this means this project is not an issue just for people who leave in the corridor that the roads and the tunnels are going to go. This is a thing for Sydney. The broader Sydney population is going to suffer these consequences. And maybe that's something we need to play up in a bigger way.

It's absolutely true that pollution levels for half a kilometer each side of roads are much higher than they are outside that. Pollution levels will be higher at entry and exit points. They'll be higher at stack points. But there are big measurement problems here.

And I guess strategically I think that getting into technical debates about levels of pollution at particular sites can be a trap for us. It's a bottomless pit of scientific debate.

Which of the air pollutants are you going to measure?

Are you going to measure it intermittently?

Are you going to measure it continuously?

Did you measure it in a gully?

Did you measure it when the wind was coming from the west?

Did you measure it when the wind was coming from the east?

What's a lower limit of badness or damage from that particular pollutant?

These are things that can be debated and I think they detract from the big picture evidence.

The big picture evidence is traffic-related air pollution is a major contributor to air pollution in general. Air pollution is unequivocally, absolutely shown to increase death rates and the frequency of major health problems for people. That's the big picture focus we should be concentrating on.

I think in fact that the agencies and government don't mind getting into debates about monitoring because they're a sideshow in the end. They become a bit of a distraction.

And I think if you look at how scientific monitoring contributed to what happened in for example around the Lane Cove Tunnel, a lot of scientists got a lot of publications. Didn't make any difference to what happened there.

Just a final point on that is there's a large review by the NHMRC of Australia, the National Health & Medical Research Council, the leading scientific body in the country, looking at the impact of tunnels and looking at health hazards. And they say two very interesting things.

In the summary of their report, they say: “We would like to state how difficult it was for us to obtain any data that was relevant to our investigation around tunnels in Australia.”

So if the NHMRC – a federally funded, senior scientific body – has trouble getting the real story about pollution and the impact of these tunnels, we're going to have a lot of trouble getting it.

The second point they make in their report – and I'll just read this – they say: "No clear evidence exists to show that monitoring such as that carried out to assess compliance with air quality goals, especially for particulate matter, can reliably predict the size and nature and cause of adverse health impacts."

So I think the NHMRC is highlighting the problems of us getting caught up in this and distracted from the big picture.

The third impact that I want to talk about is the absence of a dollar on public transport systems.

Every city in the world in developed countries that's become more liveable has invested hugely in transit systems that move people in a way which doesn't consume fossil fuels, moves people in a way which is efficient, moves people in a way which allows interaction with walking space, which encourages green space, encourages activity in people, as well as getting them around.

And I think Bill beautifully demonstrated the problems of moving people in cars versus moving people in other ways.

And that's got a health impact. That problem of not investing in public transit systems has a health impact. It has all the bad things we've been talking about and it impacts on the physical health of people.

The last thing I want to talk about is the way projects like these change the living environment in a city.

It won't just be for the people who are suffering at the moment; they change the nature of the city. They change the environment; they change the attractiveness of living in it.

So they have a social health impact as well. And the cities around the world that are investing in this and in fact finding an improvement in that.

There’s a big argument at the moment around the long-term economic benefits of approaching cities with these mass transit systems, reducing traffic, reducing this sort of pollution, and make cities more attractive to live in and more attractive to work in.

You know, I don’t think that all the things I’ve said are much help to the people who are right at the front end of this at the moment. Who are suffering the direct consequences in a way that I’m not, and that lots of other people aren’t.

I just mention these things because I think they might be useful for us strategically in trying to stop this project. To demonstrate that this has not just got an impact for the named suburbs that it goes through.

It’s got an impact for the whole city. It’s going to change the nature of Sydney. It’s going to change it for the worse. It’s going to have really major population health impacts.

Video by Russ Hermann


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