The importance of clean air

Clean air is fundamental to life and health and is a human right. Clean air is also a taonga for Māori.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that air pollution was responsible for around 7 million deaths worldwide in 2016, largely due to increased mortality from ischaemic heart disease and stroke, as well as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, acute lower respiratory infections, and lung cancer. Approximately 4.2 million of these deaths of these deaths were caused by outdoor (ambient) air pollution whilst indoor air pollution accounted for the remainder. Air pollution is recognised as the single biggest environmental threat to human health.

Air quality in Aotearoa

New Zealand’s latest research, the Health and Air Pollution in New Zealand study, estimates that in 2016, the health outcomes attributable to human-generated air pollution resulted in

  • the premature deaths of more than 3,300 adult New Zealanders
  • more than 13,100 hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiac illnesses
  • 845 asthma hospitalisations for children
  • over 13,200 cases of childhood asthma
  • approximately 1.745 million restricted activity days - days on which people could not do the things they might otherwise have done if air pollution had not been present.

Of the more than 3,300 deaths approximately 60% (2,000) were associated with nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution – which is largely from motor vehicles – whilst the rest (nearly 1,300) were associated with fine particulate (PM2.5) pollution – largely from domestic fires.

While air pollution impacts many people's health, these adverse health impacts are not always evenly distributed. Susceptible groups include elderly people, children, people with pre-existing heart or lung disease, people with respiratory conditions like asthma, diabetics and pregnant women.

Managing air quality

The management requirements for air quality are primarily outlined under the Resource Management Act (1991) and implemented through the National Environmental Standards for Air Quality, which sets limits for allowable levels of air pollution and regional planning (Regional Policy Statements and Regional Plan Rules). The implications for air quality are also considered under the Land Transport Management Act and associated Land Transport Strategies.

In September 2021, the World Health Organization published updated global air quality guidelines. The WHO global air quality guidelines are not standards or legally binding criteria in New Zealand, but they do offer evidence-informed recommendations on air quality levels that pose important risks to public health. Manatū Hauora commissioned the Institute of Environmental Science and Research to summarise the science behind the 2021 WHO Air Quality Guidelines in a series of factsheets.