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The Health and Environmental Effects of Air Pollution on Auckland

Updated on February 13, 2017

Auckland City Skyline

A Brown Haze Over Auckland.
A Brown Haze Over Auckland. | Source

Air Pollution

What sort of health and environmental effects does air pollution have on Auckland? Air quality matters tremendously because it has a direct impact on public health. Although air pollution is a multifaceted and a widespread issue throughout the world, this article is based specifically on Auckland city, in New Zealand. Auckland city was chosen as the focus area for air pollution because it has more health risks associated with anthropogenic air pollution since there is a higher quantity of motor vehicles running there than in any other region in New Zealand (Health and Air Pollution in New Zealand, p. v). Furthermore, this article will discuss how other human activity such as “… burning coal, oil, wood, petrol and diesel in domestic fires, motor vehicles and industrial processes” (Health and Air Pollution in New Zealand, p. 5) also have a large impact on Auckland’s air quality. The health risks that arise due to these human activities can be as subtle as sub-clinical effects, and can lead to severe cases such as impaired pulmonary function and physiological changes in the cardiovascular system. Human health isn’t the only thing that has been affected; air pollution has had significant impacts on our Ozone layer as well. Finally, this article will conclude how well these health and environmental issues are being managed.

Health Impacts

The essentials of human life are natural resources like food, water, and clean air. The geographical location of New Zealand’s south island plays a crucial part in providing Auckland with fresh and relatively pure air, particularly because of how isolated the south island is. However, a majority of daily human activities often cause much of the pure air to degrade by releasing chemicals and particulates which rise and contaminate the air. The most common pollutant that largely impacts human health is known as PM 10, a particulate matter that is only ten micrometres in size (Health and Air Pollution in New Zealand, p. iii). Some human activities that cause this contaminant to be released into the air are burning materials like coal, wood, petrol, oil and diesel. These materials are usually burned and/or spread in the air through domestic fires used for home heating, industrial processes, open burning, motor vehicles and some natural resources like sea spray and windblown dust. Not only does this contaminated air produce unpleasant odours and hazy days that reduce air clarity, but it also has a lethal impact on human respiratory and pulmonary functions. One-third of respiratory hospital admissions in Auckland are cases that occur in children aged one to four years (Health and Air Pollution in New Zealand, p. v). In the study undertaken by Fisher et al. (2007), on Air Pollution and Health Effects in New Zealand, sixty-seven urban areas were evaluated based on ambient and population monitoring data from 2001. The results concluded that of one thousand and four hundred premature deaths per year, one thousand and one hundred were attributed to anthropogenic contaminants in the air (Health and Air Pollution in New Zealand, p. iii). In 2006, there were two hundred and sixty-eight respiratory related hospital admissions for all ages throughout Auckland, of which fifty cases were caused by domestic fires, fifty-seven by motor vehicles and an astounding one hundred and thirty-eight were the result of natural respiratory problems (Health and Air Pollution in New Zealand, p. A1-5).

New Zealand’s quality of life depends on clean and healthy air, “not only people’s health, but also the natural functioning of and the “beauty of the natural and physical environment” (MfE, 2007). Air and air quality are both a taonga and a part of the kaitiakitanga for Maori.” (Health and Air Pollution in New Zealand, p. 5). Ozone is a crucial layer of the upper atmosphere because it protects our planet from ultraviolet radiation emitted from the sun. The ozone layer is colourless, has a distinct smell and is very highly reactive. There are two factors in determining the levels of ozone in the Auckland region: the concentration of the natural background; and the ozone gas that is formed at ground level as a result of photochemical reactions. The air arriving at north islands coastline is composed of only 20.9% Oxygen, the rest of the components are 78.1% Nitrogen, 0.9% Argon and 0.1% Carbon dioxide and other trace components (State of the Environment and Biodiversity, p. 96). When the Nitrogen component in the air comes in connect with VOCs from motor vehicle emissions at ground level, they react and ozone gas is formed. Furthermore, one of the main components of photochemical smog is caused by ozone gas at ground level. Ozone gas at ground level is so harmful it can reduce visibility significantly. It also damages sensitive plants and causes materials like paint and rubber to deteriorate. Humans that come in contact with the ozone gas often develop problems with their respiratory system. Asthmatics experience runny eyes, irritation in their nose and throat and breathing problems. Excessive exposure to ozone gas can cause lung damage and can increase chances on developing respiratory related illnesses, particularly in elderly and in infants.

Pollution City

Auckland's air quality is poor and regularly exceeds national environmental standards.
Auckland's air quality is poor and regularly exceeds national environmental standards. | Source

Policy Management

A majority of health and environmental effects are associated with air contaminants produced by natural sources, which is why it is challenging to manage the quality of air effectively with policies and practices. Therefore, realistically speaking, only anthropogenic sources of air pollution can be managed with air quality policies. Management has been taking place since 2001 when substantial improvements were made in fuel quality and emission standard requirements. Furthermore, the introduction of wood burner standards, clean heat retrofit programmes and insulation have had comparable improvements in domestic fire emissions. Open burning has also been banned in many regions since 2006, although the positive impact of this change is expected to be visible in the near future. “Although the use of solid fuels for domestic fires is declining slowly, the population is growing. Consequently, the levels of PM 10 and PM 2.5 particulates have levelled off in recent years but are still at levels that can cause significant adverse health effects” (State of the Environment and Biodiversity, p. 116). Auckland Council is responsible for maintaining air quality in Auckland region. Some of the ways in which they fulfil this responsibility is by monitoring air pollutants at 13 fixed sites throughout Auckland, including two mobile monitoring stations that can be moved to locations of interest. Air quality monitoring records show that concentrations of air contaminants have decreased previously, because of advantages offered by modern vehicle and industrial technology. However, the average concentration of smaller particulates has remained stable in recent years. Concentrations of other pollutants have decreased as well including, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide. Although nitrogen dioxide still carries a strong concentration. (Managing Auckland’s Air quality).

As far as the management of photochemical reactions and production of ozone gas goes, there is only so much that can be done since natural sources are involved. Often the monitoring systems are only able to give approximations instead of accurate concentrations of pollutants in the air. This is a result of Auckland’s windy weather. Policies and regulations for cleaner fuel have somewhat improved air quality in the Auckland region. According to the Auckland Council, “Lead levels in petrol were reduced after 1986 and were eliminated in 1996 (State of the Environment and Biodiversity, p. 116). Especially at roadsides, lead levels in the air have significantly decreased as a result. Even though Auckland has achieved promising results so far, these improvements are slightly overshadowed by the increasing number of motor vehicles, kilometres travelled and the aging vehicle fleet.

Pollution - A Problem in Auckland

Conclusion

Maintaining air quality is crucial, not only to reduce air pollution-related health impacts on humans, but also to protect plants and the environment from deteriorating. Human activities that cause harmful chemicals to mix with the air we breathe can be minimized, or carried on using alternative methods that are safer. Houses can be insulated to avoid domestic fires resulting from home. Motor vehicle usage can be minimized, and public transports can be used where applicable to avoid VOCs reacting with nitrogen and producing ozone gas at ground level via a photochemical reaction. If the public does their part to improve the environment with government authorities, slowly but surely a less harmful atmosphere will be achievable for Auckland.

References

a) Kuschel, G., Metcalfe, J., Wilton, E., Guria, J., Hales, S., Rolfe, K., Woodward, A. (2012, March). Health and Air Pollution in New Zealand. http://www.hapinz.org.nz/HAPINZ%20Update_Vol%201%20Summary%20Report.pdf

b) Shaw, S.,White, L. & Deed B. (Eds.) (2013). Health, Wellbeing and Environment in Aotearoa New Zealand. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

c) Auckland Council. State of the Environment and Biodiversity. http://www.aucklandcity.govt.nz/council/documents/technicalpublications/Chapter%204_0%20-%20State%20of%20the%20environment%20and%20bioversity%20overview%20-%20%20and%204_1%20-%20Air.pdf

d) Auckland Council. Managing Auckland’s Air quality.

e) Fisher, G., Kjellstrom, T., Kingham, S., Hales, S., Shrestha, R. (2007, June 5th). Health and Air Pollution in New Zealand. http://www.hapinz.org.nz/HAPINZ%20Exec%20Summary%20Final%20Clean%20June%202007%20v3.pdf

© 2017 Rose Kamal

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