The Air We Breathe

By Jim McVeagh 31/01/2011


Nick Smith has just sensibly announced that he will extend the target date for air quality standards out from 2013 to 2020. Predictably, Labour are ranting about people dying because of the delay in implementing the standards. The Idiot at No Right Turn is even calling Nick Smith a murderer! Apparently Mr. Smith is going to kill 635 people. That’s a lot of people – even for Nick Smith.

As you have probably guessed by now, this “statistic” of 635 people dying is a complete fabrication. It is an extraction from this report and it involves a deep misunderstanding of the data.

Setting aside the epidemiological nature of this data and the myriad assumptions contained in its final figures, the number 635 does not represent people dying from air pollution, but people whose lives end prematurely due to air pollution. Picture a man with severe emphysema from years of smoking. He is at increased risk of dying in a polluted environment. If he stays in a polluted town environment, he may die sooner than if he moved out of town. If he chooses to stay in town and dies a few months earlier than he would have otherwise, he becomes part of the 635 deaths we are talking about. Note that this man would die anyway. Few of the 635 deaths would be de novo from air pollution. The vast majority would be exacerbation of existing disease.

Implementing these standards tomorrow would preserve very few lives, but would probably save many hospital admissions. Unfortunately, as Smith points out, there is no point in trying to meet this arbitrary target because it is too late to try that.

The irony here is that the delay in implementation of these standards is entirely Labour’s fault. The previous government placed no deadlines for their target date and had only converted a paltry 800 homes to “clean air” heating by the 2008 election. As the vast bulk of pollution comes not from industries, as the Greens try to make out, but from residences burning wood and coal for heat – and from vehicle emissions, the real emphasis needs to be in residential heating, rather than industrial cleanups.

Smith estimates he is preserving 17, 000 jobs and saving $500 million by extending the air-quality targets. It is not pleasant that he has to do this at the expense of some people who will get sicker faster and die earlier than they would have. But hard decisions like this are exactly what we pay ministers for and kudos to Nick Smith for fronting up.

Additional: Hands up anyone who spotted the stupidity of the picture I used? It is a drawing showing a power station cooling tower releasing harmless water vapour and a young girl desperately using her inhaler without a spacer device (which renders the inhaler much less effective). I used it just to illustrate the disinformation that circulates in environmental circles.

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