Air pollution in Timaru can cause serious health problems, expert says
Timaru’s stubbornness in burning wood for home heating forces people to breathe in “pretty nasty stuff” that can endanger the health of the city’s young and old, a quality scientist says. air.
Dr Ian Longley, senior air quality scientist for Niwa (National Institute for Water and Atmosphere Research) said the high levels of particles in the air in towns like Timaru are due to soot from burning wood for home heating, which is also why it is more acute in winter.
His comments follow Thursday’s release of preliminary data from New Zealand’s Ministry of Environment and Statistics Our Air 2021 report which showed coarser particles (PM10) and the third worst nationally for fine particles ( PM2.5) over the four-year period from 2017 to 2020.
“Environment Canterbury (ECan) is responsible for oversight and regulation, and they’ve been aware of that for a long, long time.
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“This is why we have fairly strict air rules regarding wood heating. They are trying to get people to convert either to more efficient wood burners or, ideally, to ditch wood altogether to heat pumps.
“They’ve had some success, but there are still a lot of people who stick with their woodstove because it is working hard enough, or they can’t afford to replace it.
“This is why places like Timaru stubbornly remain at the bottom of the rankings for air quality.”
Longley said the particles are small enough to escape the body’s natural defenses and “go deep into our lungs.”
“It is a toxic product that has impacts on respiratory health but also on cardiovascular health over time.
“Inhaling too many of these particles is particularly risky for older people with a history of cardiovascular disease, but it can also interfere with lung development in young children.
“It is a risk factor for developing asthma or worsening asthma, and it is also mildly carcinogenic, which may increase the risk of lifelong cancer.”
“It’s really pretty mean stuff in a few different ways.”
He said the new, more stringent World Health Organization guidelines were looking at air quality in better places than Timaru’s and wondering if they were safe.
“When New Zealand’s air quality standards were introduced in 2005, there was not enough evidence, so the air quality [in some places] was supposed to be safer. The Who has now said… those levels weren’t sure.
Longley said that when Our Air’s final report comes out in December, Timaru will likely fare even worse than today, while other New Zealand cities will be included.
“The new guidelines will show that other places, like Wellington and Hamilton, are not out of the woods. They also have dangerous levels, but not as bad as places like Timaru. “
He said the most important thing that can be done is get away from the wood fires, “everything else is just tinkering around the edges.”
Longley said many avenues for solving air pollution and climate change “are pretty aligned.”
“It’s about reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and solid fuels and electrifying as much as possible. In the short term, we can make sure our homes are reasonably well insulated so we don’t have to heat them that much, and if we’re using wood, make sure it’s good quality, dry wood, not something like falls that can be contaminated.
He said alternatives such as pellet fires pollute much less – emitting a tenth or less of a typical wood fire – but cost is a barrier.
“The problem right now is that they’re expensive, and because there isn’t much demand yet, the pellets themselves are expensive.
Government support for the transition to pellets “would bring the price down and be a big step forward.”
ECan’s operations manager at Timaru, Judith Earl-Goulet, said “air pollution has been a concern in Canterbury for decades and is a problem that Environment Canterbury is facing”.
She highlighted the improvement in air quality since the start of monitoring PM10 concentrations in 1997.
“Air quality has improved from over 40 exceedances per year to an average of 12 over the four-year period reported in Our Air 2021.”
Violations of the guidelines were due to smoke from burning wood for home heating, compounded by lack of air circulation and temperature inversion, which are common in Timaru in winter, Earl-Goulet said.
“Timaru’s improved air quality is the result of the community adopting changes in the way they heat their homes. “
She said it was “driven by the council’s education and incentive programs supporting the rules to control sources of air pollution.”
Earl-Goulet also noted that the data for the Our Air report is preliminary and said that ECan “looks forward to receiving the full and final report in December 2021”.