Health dangers of pollution over-rated

SMOKEY TOWN: People don't really care about Timaru's smog, not helped by the fact the supposed harm is purely theoretical.
SMOKEY TOWN: People don't really care about Timaru's smog, not helped by the fact the supposed harm is purely theoretical.

It's that time of year again; the time when nights are long, toes are cold and publicly funded Environment Canterbury berates us all with messages designed to stop us from burning wood.

We are told that we have high smog days, that the PM10 level exceeds national health guidelines, billboards talk down to us and the radio campaign hits full swing.

My favourite is the one with the elderly woman who exclaims in vastly over-acted tones to the effect that smoke from chimneys is abnormal and demonstrates that wood is not being burned properly; "completely" is the word she uses.

It is difficult to understand what we are expected to learn from this advertisement. Are we being told how to burn wood properly? It seems so but the woman in the advertisement announces her log combustion epiphany with the same zeal we might expect of an octogenarian who, after a lifetime of puzzled limping, has finally looked down and discovered that one leg is noticeably longer than the other.

Perhaps the target audience is the elderly, rugged-up and presumably crouching before an inefficient old fireplace without a clue as to the correct manner of burning wood? If so, then the advertisement is insulting, although overall, it is insulting to the average person's intelligence in any event.

What then of the real issue? We have been told over and over again that PM10 particulate matter is harmful and recent results show that the health guideline, whatever that is supposed to mean, was comfortably exceeded last Tuesday. Apart from expressing this excess with a curious choice of words, the data showed that the air monitoring site at Anzac Square for that day revealed a level of 73 micrograms, which was 23 micrograms higher than the allowable guideline level. You know what that means don't you? It means stay away from Anzac Square once you have imbibed the 50 or so micrograms the guideline implies is OK to breathe in.

PM10 matter is very sneaky because we cannot see it. However, what is not sneaky or covert is the fact underlying all of this, which can be expressed thus: Nobody cares. Alright, that is not entirely accurate, some people at ECan and the Ministry of Health are being paid to care, but that is about the extent of it.

Pollution is a fashionable topic and like littering, can never be good. However, this form of pollution is neither wanton nor wholly avoidable; it is a function of the desire, and a reasonably sensible one at that, to stay warm.

Every year we experience a number of days when the limits are breached but everyone understands why. What is far less clear is exactly what harm this does any of us. The supposed harm is purely theoretical and there is not one case of serious ill-health or death (the most serious of all ill-health) that can be attributed to PM10.

Sure, there are people with respiratory disorders and other conditions that may be exacerbated by exposure to PM10 matter on an ongoing basis, but how many of those conditions are caused by PM10 in the first place? Statistics are produced to demonstrate correlations between mortality and areas where PM10 particulate matter exists but a correlation proves very little. Everyone who dies has eyes, but eyes do not kill people or cause ill health. In truth, PM10 at the levels we are experiencing does not cause anything.

Anyway, there are far more direct contributors to ill health we could be or are concentrating public money on. For example, smokers are at greater risk of certain conditions, as are unfit or overweight people. Alcohol is undoubtedly harmful. Then there are people who insist on running with scissors, despite years of clear warnings. Crazy people!

Cars have been shown time and time again to be a bit dangerous, as are chainsaws and aeroplanes. In Egypt being a journalist is dangerous, as is Christianity in the Sudan, in some parts but not others. In the Middle East it is dangerous to be a citizen of the US, which makes approximately 300 million people in grave danger if they ever go to Iran, Yemen, parts of Iraq and what is left of Syria. They had better stay at home.

On a less silly level, we might try to eliminate folk who are not exposed to PM10 and see who is left, after all, few people spend all day or night outside. Those who travel by car and spend the day inside buildings will be OK. Most people are inside at night and they will avoid the PM10, although as noted, they are flat out making it.

In fact, very few people are exposed to the excess levels of PM10, either on the high days or otherwise. Those who are outside for a brief time, even an hour or more walking the dog or shopping can't be inhaling a great deal and while the smog measuring devices at Anzac Square and Washdyke are theoretically choking off their perches, the harm to people is minimal.

We are a long way from the sort of inversion layered smog that Christchurch experienced 30 years ago where cyclists could see the soot layer on their facemasks after a ride through the streets.

Environment Canterbury needs to acquaint itself with reality and that can begin with some hard data and clear statistics demonstrating actual harm. In the meantime, we might get some relief from another form of air pollution, namely, certain radio advertisements.

The Timaru Herald