Pro­fes­sor is a breath of fresh air

Auckland City Harbour News - - News -

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.

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