“Steve Hambleton will tell a senate inquiry into air quality that Australia’s rules do not protect human health”. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Tiny pollution particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs and through the body pose a huge threat to human health but go virtually unmonitored, health experts say.

Australian Medical Association head Steve Hambleton will tell a senate inquiry into air quality that Australia’s rules do not protect human health, lag behind the developed world and have not kept pace with scientific evidence.

Emerging research shows ultrafine particles released into the atmosphere through sources such as fuel – most commonly diesel or from engines that use direct injection technology to increase efficiency – pose a serious threat to human health, according to the AMA submission.

The tiny particles, which are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, are particularly dangerous because they are so small they can lodge deep in the lungs.

Animal studies have indicated they may even be able to cross from the olfactory nerve directly into the brain.

Dr Hambleton said Australia urgently needed national standards on ultrafine particles.

”Course emissions are what you can see, like dust and smoke … but the ones you can’t see are also an issue,” he will tell a hearing in Newcastle on Tuesday.

A review released in January by the World Health Organisation found long-term exposure to fine particles could trigger conditions including hardening of the arteries, poor birth outcomes and childhood breathing problems.

Greens senator Richard Di Natale, who initiated the inquiry, said there were more Australian deaths each year from air pollution than road accidents.

More than 3000 died due to urban air pollution in 2003, nearly twice the national road toll, according to the federal State of the Environment 2011 report. NSW health estimates up to 1400 deaths and 2000 hospitalisations annually could be caused by air pollution.

Senator Di Natale said while NSW had seen some improvements in air pollution from cars, woodsmoke was still a huge problem, as was coal mining in areas like Newcastle. He said all particulate matter was dangerous, but ”the smaller the particle size the more likely it is to be able to penetrate the lung and into the bloodstream”.

Monitoring was slack, and even when there were breaches of national limits little was done.

Asthma Australia said Australia lagged behind the developed world in its knowledge of the health effects of mining.

”The existing modus operandi not only allows, but rewards polluters and asks little in return,” it said.