UPTECH-NZ: Ultrafine Particles from Traffic Emissions and Childrens’ Health in New Zealand


UPTECH - Ultrafine Particles from Traffic Emissions and Children's Health - is a world-leading observational study based in SE Queensland.

UPTECH-NZ is one of several related projects around the world which seek to investigate the same basic questions in a co-ordinated way and ensure the international validity of UPTECH’s findings.

The problem

We have known for decades that air pollution from vehicle exhausts presents a risk to population health. In recent times, evidence has emerged that the risk is greater than previously thought, especially for children. Children are more susceptible because of their immature lungs  and smaller stature which means that they are closer to car tailpipes . In Auckland City children spend extensive amounts of time in cars and many schools and childcare centres are located next to major roads. Studies in North America and Europe have found that children living near major highways can suffer impaired lung development. This can lead not only to short-term effects, but to an increased susceptibility to serious cardio-respiratory illness which can be carried throughout a lifetime.

But is there a causal link? Recent toxicological evidence has strongly suggested that ultrafine particles from traffic exhausts can penetrate deep into the lungs and into the bloodstream. They are the main factor linking exhaust emissions to ill-health. However, emissions of ultrafine particles from vehicles are not yet subject to regulation.

Currently we do not yet possess a working epidemiology of ultrafine particles to link these independent pieces of information into a causal chain, partly because levels of ultrafine particles in the air are not routinely measured. The purpose of UPTECH is to close this gap and to test whether variations in exposure of a large cohort of children to ultrafine particles from traffic emissions can be linked to variations in a range of health outcomes in those children.

The main UPTECH study is being conducted in Australia, but these results are not necessarily applicable to New Zealand. New Zealand has a different climate, higher rates of childhood respiratory disease, and more subtle differences in factors which may affect exposure to ultrafine particles, for example differences in school zoning and catchments and hence distances children travel to school.

Read more on the International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health (primary UPTECH website) 

The solution

UPTECH is an observationally-based study with two principal components:

  • ultrafine particle exposure assessment
  • health outcomes assessment (which can be questionnaires, respiratory testing, biomarkers, DNA, etc.).

The study is focused on children aged 8 - 11 and is executed through and at recruited schools. To find out more about the parent study see the main UPTECH website linked to above.

UPTECH-NZ is currently in a pilot study stage. NIWA scientists have conducted a limited study to establish levels of ultrafine particles in Auckland primary schools. The study investigated typical exposures of children outside school,  and when traveling between home and school. We will improve how this information is captured and particularly how exposure varies from school to school and between children. Preliminary results were presented at the Environment and Health Conference in Basel, Switzerland in August 2013.

At the end of the pilot study we will be able to determine how exposures differ between children in Auckland and Brisbane, both in and beyond school, and how best to record or estimate those exposures. We will then determine whether a further study of health outcomes is warranted in New Zealand.