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Health Effects of Vehicle Emissions

A new report on the health impacts of vehicle emissions in New Zealand shows the impacts are greater than previously realised.

The report, released today by Transport Ministers Mark Gosche and Judith Tizard, estimates that 399 people aged 30 and over die prematurely each year from exposure to microscopic particles from vehicle emissions.

It also estimates that 970 people of the same age group die prematurely each year from air pollution derived from all sources (including fires for home heating).

In comparison, in 2001, 454 people died from road accidents, of which 243 were aged 30 years and over.

“This report shows that air pollution from vehicle emissions in New Zealand is a significant, but under-recognised, cause of health effects ranging from illness to premature death. It demonstrates that we have an invisible road toll as well as a visible one, and highlights the need to continue working to reduce the amount of emissions created by motor vehicles, “ said Mr Gosche.

Those most likely to be affected and to suffer premature death include the elderly and people with chronic lung and heart conditions. The study only estimated the health effects of long-term exposure to particles. It did not consider other health effects such as asthma attacks, hospital admissions, increased use of medication and work affected days. These issues will be examined in ongoing research.

The report was commissioned by the Ministry of Transport following a recent World Health Organization study in Europe that indicated that the number of premature deaths for those aged over 30, due to vehicle-related air pollution, was greater than that due to the road toll. The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) worked with a number of eminent New Zealand air quality and public health researchers to produce the report.

“As with all statistical studies, there is a measured level of uncertainty regarding these figures. However this report is the first comprehensive one of its type done in New Zealand and provides a useful benchmark for future research. “

Mr Gosche said the study gave new impetus to recent government transport initiatives.

“The extra $94 million we recently committed to tackling severe traffic congestion will have a direct impact on pollution levels, as congested roads produce far more pollution than roads where the traffic is flowing freely.

“Encouraging people out of their cars and into alternative modes of transport is also a big part of any future solution. With the extra $36 million we announced for public transport a few weeks ago, we have increased passenger transport funding by 107 percent since we became government,” said Ms Tizard.

Ms Tizard, who is also the Minister assisting the Prime Minister With Auckland issues, said the report shows that Auckland is particularly affected by air pollution.

“Public transport use there has increased greatly since the government’s patronage funding system for public transport was introduced in November 2000. Aucklanders took 1.4 million extra journeys on public transport in the last half of 2001, a seven percent rise over the same period in 2000. And that’s on top of a 7.6 percent increase in 2000/01 and a seven percent increase in 1999/2000.”

Mr Gosche said that the recent land transport package also included another $30 million for alternatives to roading, especially rail.

“And for the first time ever we have established dedicated funding for walking and cycling initiatives.”

Mr Gosche said that the government had also clamped down on excessively smoky vehicles, with a “10 second rule” to prosecute drivers of these vehicles introduced last year. A police survey of the results of that change, also released today, indicates that the number of smoky vehicles has dropped from an average of 14 per cent in 2000 to 9.4 per cent, with the drop even more pronounced in Auckland.

“Clearly people are getting the message that excessively smoky vehicles are unacceptable. And for those who persist in driving smoky vehicles, the police have approximately doubled the number of infringement notices they are issuing for these vehicles.”

Other government initiatives to tackle vehicle pollution include:

- immediately lowering the sulphur content of diesel fuel in Auckland;

- improving the quality of New Zealand's petrol and diesel fuels over the next few years;

- improving the emissions quality of imported new and used vehicles; and

- undertaking further research on the health impacts of vehicle emissions.

Mr Gosche said the Ministry for the Environment and Ministry of Health were currently finalising new ambient air quality guidelines that will set minimum requirements for councils and central government to work towards through regional air quality plans and national plans.

“These guidelines are expected to be completed in the next few months and will cover various air pollutants, including those from vehicles, such as benzene.

“In addition, the work being done by the government’s climate change project to help reduce New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions should also ensure that New Zealand’s future air pollution statistics tell a better story than our current ones.

“The Ministries of Transport, Health and the Environment are already collaborating to tackle air pollution issues, and the government is now examining what extra work is needed in light of the study’s findings.

"I want to find the most practical and cost-effective ways to reduce congestion and vehicle emissions. I have asked the Ministry of Transport to look at measures such as requiring people to keep their vehicles properly maintained and tuned, and introducing emissions testing as part of the warrant of fitness process. Another option they are looking at is introducing roadside emissions testing to identify emissions testing to identify the worst vehicles. Until now some of these initiatives have not been considered cost-effective, but this report gives us good reason to take another look at those assumptions."

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