Good outdoor air quality is fundamental to our well-being. 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 (see figure 4). People with pre-existing respiratory and heart conditions, diabetes, the young, and older people are particularly vulnerable.
Figure 4: Examples of health impacts of air pollution
Note: BaP = benzo(a)pyrene; NO2 = nitrogen dioxide; O3 = ozone; PM = particulate matter; SO2 = sulphur dioxide.
Source: European Environment Agency, 2013
This image illustrates the health impacts of air pollution. Heath effects can include headache and anxiety; irritation of eyes, nose and throat; cardiovascular diseases; and impacts on the respiratory system, liver, spleen and blood, and the reproductive system.
Overseas studies have shown poor air quality can also adversely affect the natural environment. Ecological damage may occur when air pollutants come into direct contact with vegetation or when animals inhale them. Pollutants can also settle out of the air onto land and water bodies. From the soil, they can wash into waterways, or be taken up by plants and animals. Poor air quality can also affect our climate: some pollutants have a warming effect while others contribute to cooling (European Environment Agency, 2013). There have been limited studies conducted in New Zealand to explore these impacts.
These effects of poor air quality on human health and the environment can, in turn, have negative economic impacts. We incur major costs, for example, for hospitalisation and medical treatment, premature deaths, and lost work days. Damage to soils, vegetation, and waterways may reduce the productivity of our agriculture and forestry industries. In urban areas, air pollution can be costly when, for example, transport is disrupted (due to large-scale events like volcanic eruptions), or corroded buildings need to be repaired.
The sources of some of these pollutants also have positive effects. For example, having a warm home (from burning wood or coal, or other heating sources) has health benefits, while transport provides people with mobility and the distribution of goods and services.