22 Jun 2021

How fresh is the air we breathe?

From Nine To Noon, 11:30 am on 22 June 2021

Many of us take it for granted that we live in a clean, green part of the world but just how fresh is the air we breathe?

Kiwis would be surprised by what we're breathing in and how it's affecting us, says analytical chemist Dr Joel Rindelaub.

NZ mountain scene

Photo: Shawn Appel / Unsplash

Although most parts of New Zealand are lucky to have clean, sea winds moving toxic particles along, some parts of the country are "terrible for air quality", Joel says, particularly Auckland city and Central Otago in winter.

This is partly due to people in houses burning wood and coal - an "archaic way of producing heat" which creates high-risk particles in the air.

"What that does is create a lot of air pollution and it's very stagnant weather there in the winter … so it just kind of stays there and pollutes that environment."

Joel says he would give New Zealand's housing stock an 'A' for abysmal - and when houses arent up to scratch we pollute the outside air via burning wood and coal but this also affects the indoor air quality.

What we need most is better insulation - more healthy and more cost-effective.

"It's not just mould and pores these very damp environments put people at risk for other respiratory ailments."

Old cars are a big offender when it comes to air quality, too, Joel says.

New Zealand's ageing vehicle fleet contributes to high-risk emissions via diesel exhaust and smoke coming out of tailpipes. There's no safe level of these toxins and they affect multiple organs in your body.

"Any time you're burning something you're forming tiny tiny little particles and those can get deep into your lungs and throughout your body."

"Exposure to these kinds of particles puts you at risk for a lot of things… these tiny little particles are getting into your lungs, they go straight into your heart and that pumps to your brain."

Worldwide, less than 10 percent of the plastic produced is recycled so more than 90 percent goes back into the environment or is burned, Joel says.

Joel Rindelaub

Joel Rindelaub Photo: supplied by University of Auckland

Pieces of plastic - carried by wind and sea - have been found on top of Mount Everest, at the bottom of the ocean and they're in the air as well.

When plastics break down into microplastics - those small enough for us to breathe - they can travel by sea and air and are detrimental to our health especially when they contain added "plasticizers" such as BPA (often found in plastic water bottles).

When it comes to these airborne microplastics, size does matter, Joel says - the smaller they are, the deeper they can get into our bodies.

Research into the stuff that's so small we can't see but we can inhale is ongoing at the University of Auckland, Joel says.

He hopes better scientific understanding of what's in the air and how it's affecting us will inform government health regulations.