This World Environment Day the UN is calling on countries to come together to beat air pollution. In New Zealand, monitoring results collated by Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (LAWA) show air quality has improved over the past 10-years, but there is still more that communities and households can do to protect vulnerable populations from the health impacts of this ‘silent killer’.
Data collected by New Zealand’s 16 regional councils and unitary authorities, available online through the LAWA website, reveals that over the past ten years PM10 air pollution has improved at more sites than the number of sites where no clear trend is evident. While PM10 is not getting worse in any monitored airsheds, there are still some towns and cities that have challenges in winter due to the need to burn more wood to get through the longer, colder nights.
LAWA Chair Stephen Woodhead explained air quality matters because while everyone benefits from good air quality, vulnerable populations including children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing respiratory and heart conditions are most at risk when air pollutants are high.
“In New Zealand, the air pollutant of most concern from a health perspective is particulate matter and all regional councils and unitary authorities monitor this in the form of PM10.
“Burning wood and coal for home heating is our primary source of harmful PM10 and with the support of central and regional government initiatives, most towns and cities have improved air quality over the past decade by phasing out older wood burners and replacing them with more efficient, cleaner heating,” said Mr Woodhead.
In October last year, Stats NZ and the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) released Our air 2018, a report on New Zealand’s air quality. The report revealed although air pollution in New Zealand had improved, with modelled data showing the benefits to human health with eight percent fewer premature adult deaths in 2016 than in 2006, some of our practices and choices are still affecting the quality of air we breathe, especially in winter. The report confirmed burning wood and coal for home heating in winter is the leading cause of poor air quality in many places.
Weather also plays a role in air quality. Still conditions and cold temperatures effectively trap air pollutants in our towns and cities. This effect is compounded by higher emissions on cold evenings when people are more likely to keep warm by burning wood and driving instead of walking or biking.
“Air quality was better across the country last year than it was in the previous year, helped in part by a later start to winter.
“We’re hoping to see further improvements to air quality this winter and there are things we can all do to keep the air we breathe as clean as possible. You can make a difference by switching to clean heating, reducing outdoor burning, using wood-burners efficiently, reducing transport emissions, and informing regional authorities when you see signs of excessive air pollution.
“I encourage anyone with an interest in air quality and our environment to visit the LAWA website. LAWA shows hourly PM10 results and additional air quality indicators from active monitoring stations across New Zealand,” said Mr Woodhead.
Across New Zealand this winter, regional councils are running campaigns to help communities with known air quality challenges. Initiatives range from education and advice services, through to targeted schemes such as smoky chimney monitoring, Good Wood supplier lists, Clean Air Loans, and various citizen science partnerships. Residents can contact their regional council or unitary authority to access support.
Up to the hour and historical winter air quality data is available on the LAWA website www.LAWA.org.nz/explore-data/air-quality. By understanding changes in air quality, households can make informed decisions and contribute to the international effort to #BeatAirPollution.
All New Zealanders can help improve air quality where they are by following the actions below.
- Use clean heating: To improve air quality use clean home heating appliances. Older woodburners pollute the environment so heatpumps, pellet burners, or ultra-low emission burners are better alternatives. Residents can check with their local regional council or unitary authority for guidelines and information on this, and many offer schemes to help with the transition to cleaner technology.
- Be savvy fire starters: It’s important that if burning wood, the wood is dry seasoned and non-treated. People should buy firewood from trusted suppliers and become savvy fire starters by following better burning advice: https://www.warmercheaper.co.nz/
- Reduce outdoor burning: Refrain from burning waste outdoors (especially plastic, treated timber and toxic waste), as it contributes to air pollution.
- Be a helpful neighbour: If people see excessive air pollution that doesn’t look quite right, they can contact their local regional council or unitary authority to report it. Many councils have processes for providing advice to the responsible party, and in serious cases may enforce regulations. This is important for ensuring everyone can enjoy clean air.
- Reduce transport emissions: Instead of the car, people can walk, cycle or take public transport whenever possible. This is not always possible, so for those who drive, they can service their car regularly to reduce exhaust fumes. Electric cars don’t contribute the same emissions as petrol or diesel powered vehicles, so if people are in the position to make the switch this is a great option.
- Contribute to air quality policies and plans: People can get involved with central and local government air policies and plans. A person’s local regional council or unitary authority is a good place to start, as they welcome feedback from their communities.
LAWA Air Quality topic for up-to-date air quality results: www.lawa.org.nz/explore-data/air-quality/
Air Quality Factsheet: www.lawa.org.nz/learn/factsheets/monitoring-air-quality-in-new-zealand/