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Pollution a burning issue

CAPTION: Robert Notley says his emphysema is badly affected by smog in urban Masterton. PHOTO/BECKIE WILSON

By Beckie Wilson

[email protected]

Robert Notley lives on the outskirts of Masterton where the air is clean and he can breathe easy.

But when he makes a late afternoon trip into town during the winter, he can see the low-lying smog that irritates his emphysema.

Mr Notley and his wife Sue moved from England nearly two years ago to be closer to their daughter and grandchildren.

Little did they know that Masterton regularly experiences air pollution caused by wood burning in winter.

“In my case with emphysema it makes me cough, and wood smoke is one of the worst you can experience with it believe it or not,” he said.

“I didn’t realise that when we came out here, or how bad it was in Masterton.”

Masterton is prone to air pollution in winter from the use of solid fuels for home heating, such as wood fires, coupled with its location in the low-lying inland valley.

Mr Notley smoked as a youth and worked in a print mill which subsequently contributed to him contracting the lung disease.

“If I stay out of town I’m fine – no cough or anything. If I drive into town, like on one of the nights last week, then once I drive in I’m coughing like there’s no tomorrow.”

Mr Notley never had issues with smoke from log burners in England, because there central heating is the main form of heating.

He said it was not the “most pleasant thing” driving into Masterton, and seeing the smog knowing what it was going to do to his lungs.

The Masterton District Council offers grants for those wanting to replace their old wood burners, but it was not widely known, he said.

“If you use a good log burner and higher quality wood, it burns at a higher temperature and doesn’t give the contaminants off.

“At the end of the day it’s not just people like me, it’s the children — the contaminants are going to make the children suffer, it’s going to give them asthma.”

Last year, the town’s air quality dropped below both the World Health Organisation’s and National Environmental Standard’s air quality standards.

The National Environmental Standard for air quality allows for one day a year above its required standard for PM10 (the tiny particles smaller than 10micrometres that impact our air quality).

In 2016, Masterton East, measured at Chanel College, exceeded the target by 10 days and Masterton West, measured at Wairarapa College, by one.

The World Health Organisation guideline allows for three days above its required level of PM2.5.

Last year, Masterton East exceeded that target by 35 days, and Masterton West by 19.

Masterton resident Helena Phillips has lived in Masterton for 14 years.

She suffers from heart and lung problems, and is affected by the smog.

One day last week she saw a couple walking their dog and wearing breathing masks — and she didn’t blame them, she said.

“We need to accept this weather is our future and without enough wind to blow it away, we need a plan.”

An inspector should be going around checking households where black smoke was being produced, and talking to those people, she said.

“People that are earning very little probably cannot afford to pay for a heat pump and electricity bills, so burning treated and crap wood is the cheapest option for them,” she said.

Massey University professor of public health Jeroen Douwes said there was a clear association between air pollution and respiratory symptoms, and more recently neurodegenerative diseases.

“Too often people forget that in New Zealand we have environmental health issues as well, they’re just not as well recognised, and the public is probably not aware of it.”

He advises people who are burning wood to ensure it is dry so it reduces the amount of pollution.

What the councils say

Greater Wellington Regional Council air and climate team leader Tamsin Mitchell said under the proposed Natural Resource Plan, it was prohibited to burn treated wood.

If someone was caught burning prohibited materials in an open outside fire, such as treated wood and plastic, an abatement notice could be issued, she said.

The regional council offers a loan against rates for home owners in Masterton which can be put towards a new fire or insulation.

A Masterton District Council spokesman said the council was working with the regional council to explore a community behavioural change programme to improve the air quality in the town.

“The latest data shows that the air quality in the urban area is improving with only three PM10 exceedances this winter, compared to 10 PM10 exceedances over the same period in 2016,” the spokesman said.

MDC bylaws ban outdoor burning in the open air from May 1 through until August 31.


  1. I live in the United States. We’re told by the local air district that where I reside, “smog” is a warm-weather phenomenon. Smog takes ozone, heat and sunlight in the presence of smog-forming chemicals in the air such as oxides of nitrogen and hydrocarbons to form. Understanding this, I am curious as to why the wintertime air pollution in the Masterton urban area is identified as such.

  2. This is madness. Wood smoke kills, not only through emphysema, but through its cardiotoxicity and it’s carcinogenicity. There is no safe level of exposure to wood smoke. The last HAPINZ study put the annual death toll at 1,100 and recent studies have shown that particulates kill at below the ambient air quality standards, mostly through strokes and ischaemic heart disease. Replacing old polluting woodburners with new polluting woodburners is not an answer, and the new woodburners are almost as dirty as the old ones. The only answer is a complete phase-out of wood burning altogether.

    The widespread denial of the physiological harm that wood smoke does is a great shame and like climate change denial should be looked on as dangerous ignorance that is causing great harm.

    Governments at all levels are completely failing on this. We need bans on wood burning, and we need them now. Masterton needs complete prohibition on all solid fuel burning, as does every town in New Zealand.

  3. It’s probably not right to point fingers at people with wood burners when that may be the source of fuel they can afford.
    The wealthy righteous can’t tell poorer people they should use more expensive heating options, not unless Masterton gets to London smog proportions of the early 1950’s, which seems unlikely given current Masterton particle readings.

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