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Brief history of SA air quality

In the 1960s, dark smoke from waste burning at Wingfield and from coal and oil burning industries often covered Adelaide. The city was characterised by large cars, diesel buses, small brickworks fired by inefficient oil burners, small foundries, oil-fired boilers, rendering plants, paint shops, tile glazing, glass manufacturing, breweries, cement works, fertiliser production, a power station, waste burning and domestic waste incineration.

In 1969, regulations came into effect to limit dark smoke and prohibit burning of waste on dumps. With the advent of natural gas, industries such as brickmaking and those with large boilers, switched to this cleaner fuel, reducing black smoke. Modern air measuring equipment, introduced in 1971, was able to monitor carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide in real time. Polluting industries also had to register from 1972.

In the early 1970s, most complaints about air quality related to boilers, chemical works, industrial and commercial incineration, open burning, metallurgical works and odours. In 1978, the first inventory of air emissions took place as part of a national program. By the end of the 1970s, there were about 550 registered premises. More than 400 air quality related complaints were received in 1 year, many of which related to non-registered premises.

The SA Government introduced the Clean Air Act 1984. Controls on domestic incineration became mandatory and air quality assessment was required as part of planning decisions. A steady improvement in air quality began, with some periodic and location-specific exceptions, including an increase in dust during the Millennium Drought.  

Over the past 30 years (see Table 10), step-change improvements in air quality resulted from:

  • introduction of regulatory standards for emissions from industries
  • phase out of lead in petrol
  • phase out of ozone-depleting substances
  • ban on backyard incinerators in metropolitan Adelaide.

Domestic wood heaters have remained a concern over the years. The SA Government has developed community awareness programs, such as SmokeWatch, to increase community awareness of appropriate fuels and methods of operation. In 2016, it introduced formal requirements, setting standards for domestic wood heaters and stricter controls on burning in the open.    

Motor vehicle emissions have remained a key issue over time, made worse by the steady increase in total and per capita car ownership. Improvements in fuel quality and engine design have offset this to some degree. Passenger cars currently account for 94% of vehicles using the Adelaide streets.

Research confirms considerable co-benefits from reducing vehicle emissions, including improved health, reduced health expenditure, prevention of traffic injury, less noise, and more effective use of public space and infrastructure.

Table 10: Previous SOER findings




Most air pollutants decline

Domestic wood fires affect Adelaide air quality, which offsets the advances made through controlling domestic incinerators in 1984

Ozone levels increase due to motor vehicle emissions

Air quality controls are installed in numerous industries

First measures initiated to control smoking in public places.


Ozone depleting substances phased out to 22% of 1986 levels

Legislation implemented to completely phase out ozone depleting substances

Significant air pollution from vehicles still occurs with inadequate enforcement of standards

Ongoing lead pollution at Port Pirie

Dramatic increase in complaints about odour from composting


Air quality considered generally good and improving

Airborne lead decreased by 80% in metropolitan Adelaide since 1985

High levels of airborne lead still at Port Pirie

Carbon monoxide levels exceed standards in Hindley Street, as did levels for sulfur dioxide around Port Stanvac refinery

Motor vehicles remain the primary source of air pollutants

Improvements occur to vehicle standards and their enforcement

EPA Cleaner Industries Demonstration Scheme initiated

Manufacture and import of chlorofluorocarbons banned on 1 January 1996 and controls initiated on hydrochlorofluorocarbons on 1 June 1996

Methyl bromide use restricted when it became a controlled substance in 1995


Air quality improved in metropolitan Adelaide and Port Augusta

Point-source emissions reduced due to:

  • industry targeted legislation
  • voluntary improvement programs
  • ban on backyard incinerators in metropolitan Adelaide
  • increased monitoring of pollutants and locations.

Unacceptable levels of sulfur dioxide and lead detected in areas of Port Pirie

Worsened particulate matter in Whyalla

Development of State Air Quality Monitoring Plan proposed

Review of Air Quality Policy 1994 proposed

AirWatch Program introduced into schools

EPA Air Quality Education Coordinator appointed


Non-compliant levels of particulates found in most airsheds raises concern about Adelaide particulates, airborne lead and dust in Port Pirie, airborne dust in Whyalla and vehicle emissions

Range of actions announced including:

  • an Air Quality Management Plan
  • review of the monitoring network and Air Quality Policy
  • modelling of trends and impacts
  • education and behaviour change programs introduced, such as AirWatch, SmokeWatch and TravelSmart


Air quality found to be good with some periodic regional exceptions

Proposals for a National Clean Air Agreement and an SA Air Quality Framework.