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The air we breathe

The air we breathe is a mixture of gases including nitrogen, oxygen, water, argon, carbon dioxide and trace gases. Each day we inhale around 14,000 litres (14 m3) of air as we take about 26,000 breaths (that's equivalent to about 150 full bathtubs). If this air contains pollutants, we inhale them into our bodies and they can affect our health. So to protect people's health and the environment, we need to keep the air clean and free from pollution.

What is air pollution?

Many of our daily activities release chemicals and particles into the air we breathe. For example, motor vehicles release chemicals from their exhausts, and if we use fires and log burners to heat our homes, particles and other chemicals are released out of the chimney. Chemicals and particles that have the potential to affect our health and the environment are called contaminants or pollutants. When they build up in the air, they cause air pollution. The amount of pollution in the air depends on the amount of pollution produced and the rate at which the pollutants disperse.

How clean is New Zealand’s air?

The air in most parts of New Zealand is clean and healthy to breathe. We do not have the widespread pollution problems often found in and around cities in other countries. However, there are some places in New Zealand, especially in towns and cities, where air pollution does affect our health and the enjoyment of our environment.

What can I do to keep the air clean?

We all have a role to play in improving air quality where it is polluted and maintaining it where it is already good. There are many small and simple things we can all do to reduce the amount of air pollution we produce. Together, these small actions can add up to have major benefits for our health and the environment.

What effects do pollutants have on health and the environment?

Different types of air pollutants can affect our health and the environment in different ways. Information about some of the main pollutants that affect our health and the environment is available through the links below. This includes basic information about each pollutant (such as where it comes from), its potential effects on human health and the environment, the New Zealand guideline value for the pollutant and typical levels/concentrations found in New Zealand.

What do these terms mean?

Where can I learn more?

Last updated: 9 January 2008