South Australia (SA) is Australia’s 4th largest state, situated in the southern central part of Australia. SA’s population is highly concentrated, with over 77% of its population living in the state capital city, Adelaide. Like the rest of the country, South Australia experiences generally good air quality most of the year round, compared to other global locations. However, SA is also prone to experiencing short-term extreme air pollution episodes, most often due to wildfires and dust storms.
In South Australia, the main pollutants of concern vary by area. In Port Pirie, Whyalla and the capital Adelaide, particulate matter pollution is a particular concern; while wood smoke is a top concern in Mount Gambier and Mount Barker; sulfur dioxide causes concern at Oliver Street in Port Pirie; and lead is of concern in Port Pirie, while ozone levels are of concern in Elizabeth.1 South Australia monitors air quality levels against Australia’s national air quality standards, known as the National Environment Protection (Ambient Air Quality) Measure (Air NEPM), to try to ensure that pollution levels minimise health risks to Australians. However, in Adelaide, Port Pirie and Whyalla, particulate matter concentrations often exceed South Australia’s daily PM standard, making this pollutant of particular concern. Particulate matter describes tiny airborne particles, less than 2.5 or 10 microns in diameter, abbreviated as PM2.5 or PM10 respectively. These particles are particularly hazardous to human health, since when inhaled, their tiny size enables these to travel deep into the human system, into the lungs and for PM2.5, even further into the bloodstream, causing a range of health impacts.
Real-time information can be viewed within the dynamic South Australia air quality map at the top of this page, which also includes wildfire alerts. These, along with a 7-day South Australia air quality forecast, can be accessed any time on-the-go using the IQAir AirVisual air pollution app.
Among a ranking of 95 cities included in IQAir’s 2019 World Air Quality Report, Adelaide’s air quality emerged as the country’s 25th cleanest city for PM2.5 pollution, with an annual mean concentration of 5.9 μg/m3.2 This average achieves both the Australian annual standard for PM2.5 (8 μg/m3), and the World Health Organisation’s annual target for PM2.5 (10 μg/m3). This made Adelaide Australia’s 2nd cleanest state capital for PM2.5 pollution, beaten only by Hobart, Tasmania’s air quality (4.4 μg/m3).
Within South Australia, air pollution comes from a range of natural and human-influenced sources. The main sources of pollutants vary from rural to more urban areas. Within rural areas of SA, main pollution sources include mining, agricultural and forestry operations, controlled burns, bushfires and dust storms; while in regional centres, industrial processes (such as mining, smelting, steelworks), wharf operations, ship loading, domestic solid fuel heaters, and dust storms and fires are the main sources of pollution. In the Greater Adelaide region, key sources include vehicles, domestic solid fuel heaters, industrial and commercial processes, fires and small engines.3
Vehicle emissions are one area of emissions which offer one potential area for improvement, given that Australia as a whole has a relatively high rate of private vehicle usage by global standards. For its approximately 1.8 million residents, the state has 1.2 million vehicles, with passenger cars accounting for 94% of all vehicles within Adelaide’s CBD.3 This indicates a potential opportunity to promote further uptake of public transport and active travel such as walking and cycling, to reduce vehicle emissions.
Even at low levels such as those found in South Australia year-round, any amount of ambient air pollution can cause negative health impacts. Certain parts of South Australia’s population are most vulnerable to the health impacts of air pollution, including children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with pre-existing health conditions. Exposure to air pollution can cause a range of short- and long-term effects. Short-term impacts can include irritation of eyes, nose and throat, and aggravation of existing conditions such as asthma. Conversely, long-term effects of air pollution exposure can include an increased risk of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, such as chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD), lung cancer, or premature mortality.
The health impacts of emissions from motor vehicle pollution alone within South Australia, are estimated to contribute towards over 1,000 premature deaths annually within the state, while the health damages of pollution coming from domestic solid fuel heaters are estimated to cost the state $153 AUD million annually (equivalent to approximately $113 million USD).3 Furthermore, the University of Adelaide and SA Health conducted an air pollution study in Adelaide in 2012, which showed a positive correlation between elevated levels of particulate matter pollution and rates of hospitalisation. For example, an increase of 10 μg/m3 of PM2.5 increased hospitalisation for cardiovascular disease by 4.5%, and by 1.5% for PM10 during winter. Meanwhile, respiratory-related hospital admissions increased in relation to PM10 levels in winter within the 15-63 years old age bracket, by 3%.4
South Australia, like the rest of the country, is prone to experience bushfires on an annual basis. Australian bushfires can begin for a range of reasons; most often naturally, due to a lightning strike, or alternatively through human activity, either accidentally (such as an accidental spark), or deliberately, through planned burning or arson. Different areas of Australia have highest risk of fires at different points in the year, due to seasonal weather changes. In general, northern Australia is most at risk during the winter months, while southern Australia is at highest risk during the dry summer months. Adelaide, located in south-east Australia, experiences peak fire risk conditions during the summer and autumn, as grass and forests dry out during the hot conditions.5
During the summer of 2019-2020, Australia experienced particularly devastating wildfires, following months of drought, low rainfall and record-breaking temperatures. This period came to be termed the “black summer”, due to the vast damage caused by the fires. South Australia was no exception to the black summer’s fires, with significant fires occurring within the state during December 2019. South Australia’s fires occurred across the Adelaide Hills region, on Kangaroo Island, and on the York Peninsula.6 By Christmas Eve 2019 (24 December), the Adelaide Hills fires were estimated to have burned through over a third of the region’s vineyard production, a devastating blow for an area with wine production as a key economic activity.7 At least 25,000 hectares of land had been burned in the fires, with the lost grape production estimated at a value of around $20 million AUD (equivalent to approximately $15 million USD), which eventually would have become 794,000 lost cases of wine.5 Despite the enormously damaging direct effects of these fires, experts estimate that the fires’ indirect effects on health, via smoke inhalation, are even worse. A study in the Medical Journal of Australia estimates that while 33 people were reported as tragically losing their lives to the fires during the black summer, a further 417 premature deaths were caused through smoke exposure, along with 3,151 additional hospitalisations for cardiorespiratory problems and 1,305 further hospital attendances for asthma attacks.8
The South Australia Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) is responsible for South Australia’s air quality management. The state is obliged to try to meet the broader objectives of achieving Australia’s air quality standards, called the National Environment Protection (Ambient Air Quality) Measure (Air NEPM). These standards set short-term (such as 24-hour) and annual mean exposure targets for various key pollutants, which Australia’s air quality should not exceed, in order to minimise people’s health risk from air pollution. Accordingly, the SA EPA operates a network of 9 air quality sensors around the state. 6 of these are located around the greater Adelaide region, while 3 more are located measuring Spencer Gulf’s air quality, in the areas of Whyalla and Port Pirie.
The South Australia EPA then communicates this data to the public using a version of a South Australian air quality index, called ‘air quality categories’. The South Australian AQI categories use a color-coded scale crom 0 to 150+, with higher numbers indicating worse air quality. The scale begins at 0-33 representing “Very good” air quality (blue), up to 150+ representing “Very poor” air quality (black). In this way, the South Australian EPA strives to clearly simplify and convey the health hazards of various levels of air pollutants, so that South Australians can quickly understand and take actions to protect health if needed.
+ Article resources
 Australian Government. “State of the Environment 2013: South Australia. What are the pressures?”. South Australia EPA website, 2013.
 IQAir. “2019 World Air Quality Report”. IQAir website, March 18, 2020.
 Australian Government. “Air quality: key pressures and impacts on air quality in South Australia”. South Australia EPA website, 2018.
 Government of South Australia. “Protection against environmental hazards”. SA Health website, 2018.
 Australian Government Bureau of Meterology. “Bushfire weather”. Bureau of Meteorology website, n.d.
 Calla Wahlquist, Amy Corderoy, Naaman Zhou. “SA hard hit as Australian fires burn into the night – as it happened.” The Guardian, December 20, 2019.
 Royce Kurmelovs. “SA fires: Adelaide Hills wine industry devastated as bushfires sweep through”. The Guardian, December 24, 2019.
 John Pickrell. “Smoke from Australia’s bushfires killed far more people than the fires did, study says”. The Guardian, March 20, 2020.