Wellington’s air pollution levels are spiking as some of the worst bush fires in history rage across the Tasman.
Air currents are carrying smoke and pollutants from Australia, up the west coast of the South Island, and then across the middle of the country, putting one centre above the national standard.
Air pollution is measured in micrograms per cubic metre of air (ug/cm3). A PM10 particle is less than 10 microns in diameter, or one-fifth of the diameter of human hair, and are easily inhaled and absorbed into the lungs.
The national standard – the level of pollution deemed safe in New Zealand – is 50 micrograms per cubic metre.
The hourly average spiked to 52 at the Birch Lane station in the Hutt Valley around 3am on Friday morning – above the national standard for human safety – but dropped below again by 5am.
It reached 39.4ug/cm3 at the Willis St monitoring station at 8am on Friday, and levels reached 46.3ug/cm3 at the Wainuiomata bowling club station.
At high levels the particles can cause significant health effects, especially in the elderly, infants, those with asthma and other respiratory diseases, and people with other chronic diseases such as heart disease.
Senior lecturer in applied environmental chemistry at Massey University, Nick Kim, said air quality in Wellington was generally pretty good, mostly due to the high winds moving things along.
Kim said the main concern was the particle matter, as gases like CO2 or SO2 being swept across from Australia posed a low risk from that distance.
He would be surprised if this event exceeded the national standard of 50ug, but the bush fires would likely continue to create a “secondary imprint” on New Zealand’s levels.
While the increased particle matter meant most people had no cause for alarm, it held the potential to harm people already suffering from respiratory illness, Kim said.
“We are absolutely going to see many more of these events.”
The levels didn’t pose a high enough risk to warrant action at this point, but constant monitoring was necessary.
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