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Air quality issues in New Zealand towns: 2020 project overview

Poor air quality is a problem during winter in many New Zealand regions. Air pollution can have a significant detrimental effect on human health.    

Domestic wood burners are a major source of air pollutants in urban areas during winter. However, until recently, little scientific evidence had been gathered to show how smoke levels in New Zealand towns are influenced by the weather, topography, buildings and home-heating behaviour. Regional councils need that evidence to design effective intervention strategies.

NIWA's Community Observation Networks for Air (CONA) research projects work with communities to tackle the air pollution issues relevant for them. We take our sensors, distribute them in the community and try to answer the questions that the participants have around the impacts of air pollution on their health.

CONA studies in Arrowtown in 2019, Alexandra in 2018 and Rangiora in 2015-17 have proven that the technologies and methodologies used by NIWA to monitor and track the behaviour of air pollutants are reliable and provide valuable data to support mitigation efforts by local authorities.

In winter 2020 NIWA scientists are working across several New Zealand towns

Winter brings high levels of air pollution to many towns in New Zealand, and being inside may offer only limited protection. Causes include:

  • Wood burning, cooking and smoking inside houses.
  • Calm winds preventing smoke from dispersing.
  • Polluted air from outside entering and getting trapped inside homes.

As well as setting up outdoor air quality sensor networks, we work with households to measure indoor air quality. Participants are given a pack of our small sensors to place in their home for 2 to 4 weeks. The sensors silently test for smoke in the home and record when people were using heating. Households who join our research receive a personalised assessment of the heating and air quality in their home.

Working with the community in Arrowtown

In 2019 this project was run in conjunction with Otago Regional Council, Southern District Health Board and the Cosy Homes Trust. Some of the households we recruited also took up home insulation and/or heating subsidies, which is enabling us to assess the effect on air quality of changing a heating source or improving insultation.

Communities interested in participating can contact NIWA’s Air Quality Team by emailing [email protected].

2019 results from Arrowtown

View the results from our work in Arrowtown in winter 2019 here.

View some results from our Unlocking Curious Minds project with Arrowtown School here.

International collaboration

As well as the New Zealand work, we are currently supporting a program to reduce wood smoke in Rocky Mountain towns with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and the University of Montana. Read our Community observations network for air - Montana and Idaho blog.

Research subject: Air Quality