Factsheet: Q&A: New Zealanders Breathing Better Air #BeatAirPollution

What is #BeatAirPollution?

World Environment Day 2019 is issuing a call to action to combat the global air pollution crisis. Nine out of ten people worldwide are exposed to levels of air pollutants that exceed World Health Organization (WHO) safe levels. Around seven million people worldwide die prematurely each year from air pollution with about four million of these deaths occurring in Asia-Pacific. In New Zealand, most places are well within the WHO guidelines for safe air quality, but winter can be a challenging time in some parts of the country and there are things we can do to further improve our air quality. Read more about the campaign to #BeatAirPollution.

What causes air pollution?

In New Zealand air pollution is caused by human activities (eg, burning of fuels for home heating, vehicle exhausts - particularly diesel, road dust and quarrying) and natural sources (eg, wind-blown dust, pollen, and sea salt). 

Our Air 2018 revealed that burning wood and coal for home heating in winter is the leading cause of poor air quality. This is supported by research from Environment Southland that has clearly shown that home heating is the main source of winter air pollution in Invercargill and Gore, with more than 90% of PM10 caused by home heating burners.

The level (or concentration) of pollutants in the air at any given time depends on the quantity of pollutants being released into the air (known as emissions), and whether these emissions are being dispersed by winds or removed by rain.  On still days, air pollutants can build up and this is often reflected in the data collected by regional councils and unitary authorities.

In some small New Zealand towns, particularly in the South Island during winter time, a temperature inversion can form creating a layer of warm air that traps cooler air and any air pollutants underneath.  These most often occur in towns situated in valleys or basins, where night time temperatures are low, and there is no wind.  The combination of higher levels of air pollutants being emitted and trapped, leads to poor air quality in these towns.

What are the health risks of air pollution?

On average, a person inhales about 14,000 litres of air every day, and the presence of contaminants in this air can adversely affect people’s health. People with pre-existing respiratory and heart conditions, diabetes, the young, and older people are particularly vulnerable to these effects. Damage to respiratory and cardiovascular systems can lead to hospital admissions, days of work lost, and shorter lives.

Who is responsible for measuring air quality in New Zealand?

Regional councils and unitary authorities measure outdoor air quality in their regions as part of their responsibilities for managing air quality. National Environmental Standards for Air Quality (NESAQ) are regulations made under the RMA that set limits in outdoor air for PM10, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and ozone to provide a minimum level of health protection for all New Zealanders.

Regional councils and unitary authorities report on how levels of air pollutants in their towns compare to the NESAQ and to other national and international guidelines.  Read more.


What is measured?

Regional councils and unitary authorities that conduct air quality monitoring measure PM10. Other pollutants are also measured by some councils and reported on LAWA where available. This includes PM2.5, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, ozone, and/or benzene. Read more.

What is PM10?

Air pollution comes from different sources, but the one of most concern to human health is suspended particulate (PM10). These are tiny particles in smoke, smaller than 10 microns across, which is about one-fifth the diameter of a human hair. These particles are so small that they get inhaled and can travel deep into the lungs, irritating the breathing passages. Large amounts of PM10 are associated with many health problems such as irritation of the eyes and nose and making existing respiratory or cardiac problems worse among young children and the elderly.

What can people do to improve air quality where they are?

  • 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.

What is Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (LAWA)?

LAWA aims to connect New Zealanders with their environment through sharing scientific data online. It is world-leading in its open approach to making data collected by authorities, freely available to the public. This is made possible by a collaboration of New Zealand’s 16 regional councils and unitary authorities, Ministry for the Environment, and Cawthron Institute. It has worked with and received support from many New Zealand organisations including Massey University and the Tindall Foundation. LAWA is committed to sharing the best available information, so New Zealanders can make informed decisions.