Home Fire Scaremongering

New Zealand Centre for Political Research

The New Zealand Centre for Political Research is a web-based think tank that takes a research-based approach to public policy matters and encourages the free and open debate of political issues.

The Green Party had a significant impact on government regulation and legislation during the nine years Helen Clark was Prime Minister. Many radical environmental initiatives were introduced by Labour as a result of their influence and while some were eventually dropped or terminated by the National Government, others, like the ban on household fires and older wood burners, remain in place.

The Sustainable Development for New Zealand Programme of Action, launched by then Minister of the Environment, Marion Hobbs, in 2003 was one of the main catalysts for action. The document explains, “Sustainable development was brought to international attention by Agenda 21 and the Rio Earth Summit, which focused on the pressures that will need to be resolved if the environment, the economy and communities are to flourish in the 21st century. At a global level and here in New Zealand, we need innovative solutions for the complex issues we face.”

A key focus of the programme was to ensure that “each individual, household, institution and business uses energy, water and clean air more efficiently and with less waste.”

For Labour, the preferred way to make sure that New Zealanders complied with their agenda was to regulate. As a result, regulations were developed to cover an array of measures including energy efficiency, water conservation, and air pollution.

In fact, the Greens’ push for sustainable development led Labour into a frenzy of over-regulation. It seemed that the government was not only determined to tell New Zealanders how to live their lives, but by 2007, it appeared they were planning to enter the household bathroom to dictate what sort of shower head a family could and couldn’t use.

Until then there had been no controls on the water flow of showers and rates ranged from 5 litres per minute to around 24 litres a minute. The average was 13 litres a minute.

The new regulations, which were to take effect from 1 February 2009, were part of a range of amendments to the building code. Under the changes to NZBC H1 Energy Efficiency, which covered hot water systems, any building consent for a new home or an alteration would have required a 6 litres per minute shower head for larger homes over 150 square metres and 7.5 litres a minute for smaller homes. Repairs or replacement of existing hot water systems would have been allowed – just so long as they did not make the shower less efficient.

Labour also proposed that carbon dioxide emissions should be part of the equation when deciding on the choice of hot water systems. They said, “This is groundbreaking for New Zealand, as it is the first time these emissions could be considered as part of the performance measure in the Building Code”. Under a range of new hot water system proposals, the government expected the country to reduce its annual carbon dioxide emissions by 1,500 tonnes, compounding each year.

But just three weeks out from the 2008 General Election, public anger over the plan to impose low-flow shower heads onto the country forced Labour to pull the plug and the proposed regulation was dropped.

Then there was Labour’s plan to ban traditional light bulbs.

In June 2008, New Zealanders were told that the traditional incandescent light bulb was on its way out – as part of the government’s strategy for more energy efficient lighting.  They said: “It is intended that from late next year, these inefficient incandescent bulbs will be phased out because they waste so much energy. There’s a whole new generation of lighting coming through that is more cost-effective, saves energy and is better for the environment.”

The Efficient Lighting Strategy aimed to reduce lighting energy consumption by 20 per cent by 2015. Key to this was the need to ‘help’ Kiwis embrace more efficient and affordable lighting technology through “phasing out the least efficient lighting products by setting minimum energy performance standards”.

Labour’s then Energy Minister David Parker and the government’s spokesman on Energy Efficiency and Conservation, the Green Party’s co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, argued, “Technology is moving quickly in this area. There’s already an excellent range of modern, stylish energy efficient light bulbs on the market that save money and power for New Zealanders. Each year we spend approximately $660 million on electricity for lighting in this country, generating about 2.65 million tones of greenhouse gas emissions. New Zealanders will be able to save almost $500 million by 2020, just by changing the lights”.

As could have been expected, having the government dictating what sort of light bulbs families could use in their homes aroused a strong response. The resulting accusations of ‘nanny state’ contributed to Labour’s defeat in the 2008 General Election.

Just six months after the light bulb ban was announced, the new National government scrapped it. The Minister of Energy Gerry Brownlee explained that while they too were committed to energy efficiency in the home, they believed that lighting was a matter of consumer choice: “People need good, credible information about the different lighting options that are available to them, and then they can decide what is right for them in their homes. Lifting the previous government’s ban on incandescent light bulbs simply means we are allowing their continued sale, and I am confident the consumer trend to energy efficient bulbs will continue.” Mr Brownlee said it was up to householders to decide which light bulb they used.

But while National strongly opposed the intrusive plans to regulate shower heads and light bulbs, they left another of Labour’s insidious sustainable development environmental regulations in place – the ban on open fires and older wood burners in New Zealand homes, even though this too crosses a line by intruding into the private lives and decision-making of householders.

The home fire ban is based on the socialist ideology of the United Nations, which uses computer modelling through the World Health Organisation (WHO), rather than hospital data, to issue air quality guidelines.

New Zealand’s first national air quality standards under the Resource Management Act (RMA) were introduced by Labour’s Environment Minister Marion Hobbs in July 2004. These National Environmental Standards for Air Quality set Ambient Air Quality Standards based on WHO guidelines to regulate outdoor air quality to protect human health and the environment.

Under the RMA, regional councils and unitary authorities were required to identify areas, or ‘airsheds’, where the air quality was a cause of concern. Where an airshed breached the environmental standard, the regional authority was required to develop a plan to ensure compliance by a deadline of 2013[i]. If the standard was exceeded after that time, no new air discharge consents for that pollutant could be granted, and anyone seeking land use consents would face constraints.

According to the Minister, “the standards are based on comprehensive consultation, research and scientific evidence and were developed by the Environment Ministry in consultation with local government, business and the community”. The problem is that not all of the standards that were adopted are scientifically based.

The ambient air quality standards set maximum levels for the amount of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, ozone and fine particulate matter of less than 10 microns in size (PM10) in the air. While setting safety standards for individual gases is relatively straight forward, that is not the case for particulate matter. PM10, which is generated by household fires, motor vehicles, outdoor burning, industry, as well as natural sources, has been labelled as a killer of thousands of New Zealanders a year.

The Updated Health and Air Pollution in New Zealand study, which is sponsored by the Ministry for the Environment, states that “the primary health impact resulting from air pollution is premature mortality in adults. More than 2,300 New Zealanders are estimated to die prematurely each year due to exposure to PM10 pollution from all sources, with just over half associated with anthropogenic sources”.

Of the reported 2,316 premature deaths a year, household fires are claimed to be responsible for 655 deaths a year, motor vehicles for 256 deaths a year, outdoor burning for 140 deaths a year, and industry for 123 deaths a year. That makes a total of 1175 deaths a year due to human sources.

Natural sources are said to account for the remaining 1,141 deaths a year: “The main natural sources of PM10 in New Zealand are sea spray (referred to as ‘marine aerosol’) and windblown dusts (referred to as ‘soil’). Other sources such as volcanic eruptions and trans-Tasman emissions from bush fires and dust storms in Australia can be significant but are infrequent occurrences and are difficult to quantify. Only marine aerosol and soil were considered in this update.”

In other words, the research that is being used to ban open fires and older wood-burners in New Zealand households claims that a proportion of the 1,141 people who die prematurely each year from exposure to natural sources of PM10, die from exposure to sea spay! This really does show the absurdity of the claims that have become the basis for the regulations.

The reality is that our air quality standards are based on overseas studies that predict harmful health effects through assumptions based computer modelling, not actual hospital and health data. The scaremongering that surrounds this issue, which claims that hundreds of people a year die prematurely from inhaling wood smoke, is scandalous. The data should be the subject of a full government inquiry, since these regulations are having such widespread effect on families throughout the country.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator and researcher Mike Butler, has been investigating the claims that PM10 is a major cause of death in New Zealand:

“A simple request to the Ministry of Health under the Official Information Act in April of this year brought a response that ‘we cannot identify whether a death was caused by exposure to PM10’. In other words, there is no evidence PM10 has caused any deaths at any time in New Zealand.

“My request sought all advice received on PM10 from fires and woodburners, along with full details of the numbers of respiratory illness deaths throughout New Zealand. The reply said that although mortality figures includes coded causes of death, and although respiratory illness deaths may be identified, the information does not record what may have caused the illness.

“Therefore, the over-hyped PM10 issue is not so much an actual safety issue; it is problem that has been defined into existence. Without busy body bureaucrats the issue would simply not exist.”

Mike is not the only one to recognise that the fire ban is flawed.

Dr Pat Palmer, an independent scientist based in Christchurch, has been fighting the false claims that the smoke from fires causes premature deaths for years. He explains that the scaremongering that smoke from home fires are causing deaths is based on computer estimates, not clinical records, mortality statistics, nor coroners’ reports. He points out that while the restrictions on the use of domestic fires has reduced the concentration of PM10 from smoke in the atmosphere, the number of deaths from respiratory causes has not reduced.

In fact, two studies from Denmark last year looked into the impact on wood smoke on human health finding, “if people are exposed to large amounts of wood smoke… it is certainly uncomfortable and it irritates the lungs, but it has no long-term effect on the lungs’ ability to function, or on our cells or any of our other bodily functions”.

In other words, the dire claims that open fires and old wood burners are killing us are bogus.

It is time elected officials throughout the country stood up against socialist doctrine being passed off as scientific research. They could start by asking themselves if they accept the claims of their Ministry for the Environment that 2,316 adults a year die prematurely from inhalation of PM10, when their Ministry of Health has no such evidence.

THIS WEEK’S POLL ASKS:

Do you accept the claims that 2,316 adults a year die prematurely from inhalation of PM10 (that is, particle matter of less than 10 microns in size)?

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