New Zealanders are breathing cleaner air, but further improvements would make a difference to our nation’s health

Regional and unitary council monitoring data reveals New Zealand's air quality has improved since the introduction of the National Environmental Standards for Air Quality in 2005. However, an update to the LAWA Air Quality topic to also compare particulate matter concentrations in towns and cities across the country against the new World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines shows there is potential to reduce health risks more by further combatting air pollution.  

Dr Jonathan Caldwell, an Air Quality Scientist involved in the LAWA project and Senior Environmental Chemist at Waikato Regional Council, explained the importance of monitoring air quality to identify potential health and environmental risks, and direct efforts to the places that need the most intervention.  

“Breathing polluted air, particularly smoke from fuel burning, can lead to respiratory illness, high blood pressure, and even premature death. When breathed in, particles less than 10 micrometres in diameter, referred to as PM10, can deposit in the upper airways and cause irritation. Smaller particles less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5) can lodge deep into our lungs and reach the bloodstream. 

“Air quality in New Zealand is generally showing an improving trend where there is sufficient data from regional and unitary council monitoring available.

“The LAWA Air Quality National Picture Summary 2023 published today reveals 18 out of 60 monitored sites did not meet the New Zealand National Environmental Standard for daily average PM10 concentrations last year. PM2.5 was monitored at 32 sites, with only five sites meeting the new daily and annual average non-regulatory WHO guidelines in 2022,” said Dr Caldwell.* (correction note below) 

In New Zealand, home wood burners are the primary source of air pollution in most towns during winter. Smoke levels are affected by what is burned and the weather conditions and geography of the surrounding landscape. Other sources include vehicle emissions, outdoor burning, industry, dust, and sea spray. 

From today, people can explore air quality results from their regional or unitary council monitoring programme reported against New Zealand’s National Environmental Standards and the new WHO guidelines on the LAWA website. Councils proactively make this data available to their communities to help inform decisions that can improve air quality. 

“The LAWA interactive air quality map has been updated to show results against the new WHO guidelines that set lower thresholds for air pollution levels that can affect our health.  

“People may be surprised to see that when air quality is assessed using these new guidelines, it can appear that the air in their town is worse compared to the previous guidelines, however it's important to keep in mind that this doesn't necessarily mean an increase in pollution. Rather, the guidelines have changed to reflect our improved understanding of the health effects from breathing polluted air. 

“We now know that even lower levels of pollutants, can have adverse effects on our health and well-being and these findings emphasise the need for collective efforts and research to better understand air pollution and ways of further reducing it across the country,” said Dr Caldwell.  

For example, the recent Health and Air Pollution in New Zealand 2022 study found that nitrogen dioxide from motor vehicles accounts for over half the health and social costs associated with air pollution.

The LAWA website's air quality topic serves as a valuable resource for New Zealanders to learn more about air pollution in their region and its significance. Visitors to the website can access real-time air quality data, educational resources, and tips on how they can contribute to improving air quality

LAWA Chair Dr Tim Davie recognised the good work of communities alongside regional and unitary councils to improve air quality and said together we can keep moving in the right direction.  

“By reporting air quality against the new WHO guidelines, we are acknowledging the importance of an ongoing focus on environmental public health. The LAWA Air Quality topic now helps us to have a clearer picture of the potential risks associated with air pollution, even at lower levels. 

“Ultimately, the aim of the LAWA project partners in making this change is to ensure that we are aware of the potential health impacts and continue to inform work towards reducing air pollution to safeguard the well-being of individuals and communities,” said Dr Davie. 

Dr Davie encourages New Zealanders to be mindful of how actions that create smoke (such as lighting a wood fire, outdoor burning, and vehicle emissions) impact the quality of the air that we all breathe and make healthier swaps where possible. 


*Correction: A version of the media release below published on 21 June quoted figures from a previous version of the National Picture Summary that used a draft unverified dataset. Post-release, the LAWA Air Quality National Picture Summary 2023 was updated with figures from the final corrected dataset available from the download data page on the LAWA website. The media release below has been updated to reflect that the correct number of monitored sites that did not meet the New Zealand National Environmental Standard for daily average PM10 concentrations last year was 18 out of 60 rather than the previously reported 12 out of 53, and PM2.5 was monitored at 32 sites rather than the reported 31 sites, with five sites meeting the new daily and annual average non-regulatory WHO guidelines in 2022 opposed to the previously reported two sites. These corrections do not have an impact on the wider content of the media release.