Professor is a breath of fresh air
Clean air expert Alistair Woodward doesn’t smoke yet keeps an ashtray on his desk to remind himself that things change.
The heavy glass ashtray is like those once seen in bars everywhere but has Auckland School of Medicine on it in red letters.
“Once the department would be in a smoke-filled room but now we have smokefree workplaces,” Dr Woodward says.
Head of the Population Health School, the professor has been involved in air quality research for more than 15 years.
An advocate of smokefree workplaces, he says the idea was once unthinkable and when in 1995 he was part of a group that recommended the Sydney Olympics be smokefree, and called for a workplace smoking ban, the media had a field day.
“Our ideas were called outrageous, nanny state, over the top and thought up by pointy-headed university types,” he says.
But Sydney was smokefree and he says just as it is now unacceptable to smoke at work, one day people will feel the same about outdoor air and open fires.
Dr Woodward believes in 15 years we will wonder how people could have doubted doing something about diesel trucks and open fires.
But he says raising awareness about outdoor air quality issues is harder than raising awareness about secondhand smoke because it is less visible, the causes are more varied and the exposure rates aren’t as high.
Recent studies show people should be concerned. Even low levels of particles in the outdoors increase people’s chances of serious heart disease.
Air pollution is a health risk – especially to elderly and young people with respiratory illness or asthma – and a threshold where particles don’t cause damage has yet to be found.
Improving insulation helps air quality as well as improving health, he says.
Recently involved in a study on the topic, he says children in insulated homes had fewer days off school, less illness and asthma, the families were more comfortable and they saved money on heating.
A second study looked at families using unflued heaters whose children had asthma.
Their homes were insulated and the families given a heat pump, chip burner or flued gas heater. The children had less asthma and fewer days off school and visits to the doctor.
Dr Woodward says change occurs when there are winwin solutions.
“Reducing car travel is good for pollution locally, for the atmosphere, and it’s good in terms of getting people more active and because we use less petrol.
“We know open fires cause more air pollution than we appreciated and they are ineffi We also know that it’s bad for people’s health to be in cold homes,” Dr Woodward says.
“If we can find ways of improving heating efficiency there are direct health benefi • During winter home fires cause 65 percent of harmful emissions. People can reduce pollution by burning better fires by having clean, dry, wood. Green or wet wood does not burn efficiently.
Fresh air: Professor Alistair Woodward says in years to come people will look back and wonder why we were so slow to act on air pollution.