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Mike Butler

Govt fabricating deaths in woodburner scare tactics

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The Auckland Council is campaigning to ban domestic open fireplaces and old wood burners by claiming that such fires result in the premature deaths of 110 persons every year even though evidence for such deaths does not exist.

The Auckland Council was due to approve draft rules on Thursday last week for public consultation this month, but voted to defer the matter until February. The mayor’s office was believed to be behind the move to defer the air-quality bylaw after widespread criticism. (1)

A report in the New Zealand Herald earlier this month breathlessly asserted that 75 per cent of Auckland’s winter air pollution is due to fine particle emissions less than 10 microns in diameter (PM10) from open fires and non-compliant wood burners. The ban would affect 85,000 homes. (2)

Noting that motor vehicles account for 18 per cent of pollution, and industry 7 per cent, “the burning of coal and wood during winter raised the level of PM10 inhaled and lodged in lungs, and that 110 adults died prematurely every year due to emissions from indoor fires”.

But 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.

This means that the Environment Ministry and the Auckland Council are making stuff up to scare or guilt people into upgrading their woodburners. Reporters at the Herald obviously no longer evaluate the truth or falsity of, or even try to understand, data dumped on them by local or central government, and the editor doesn’t know what’s going on.

Friday’s Herald article repeated the fiction that claims non-compliant fires result in the premature deaths of 110 persons each year.

I can write with total authority on this subject because I live in Hastings and everyone living in Hawke’s Bay has been dragged through this nonsense for years – even threatened with woodburner police who will fly around in a spotter plane on smoky nights using a thermal imaging camera to spot naughty residents using old woodburners.

The sight of an open fire in a movie makes us nostalgic for happier days in a simpler past.

According to the Environment Ministry website, “2004 regulations set threshold concentrations for certain air pollutants including particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter (PM10). These regulations required restrictions to be in place before 2013, and a complete ban on granting consent for industry after 2013, if the PM10 standard was not met.” (3)

The Environment Ministry conjured up the PM10 scare initially by hosting breakfast meetings with local authorities in mid-2002 and went on to work with regional councils to promote air quality as is a significant health and environmental issue “to ensure the sustainability of our towns and cities”. (4)

Further investigation reveals that air quality is a hobbyhorse of the United Nations Environment Programme, yes, the body that former Prime Minister Helen Clark is administrator of.

However, UNEP is not looking at woodburners. UNEP says 90 percent of air pollution in cities . .  is attributed to vehicle emissions brought about by high number of older vehicles coupled with poor vehicle maintenance, inadequate infrastructure and low fuel quality. (5)

Which is pretty much the case in New Zealand as well. Forget about open fires and woodburners.

What is PM10? The Herald says it “is term used to describe particles that are 10 micrometres or less in diameter and harmful to human health”. What does that mean? Bear in mind a micrometer is one millionth of a metre, so a PM10 particle is 10 one-millionths of a metre across.

If an arbitrary level of 50 one-millionths of a metre per cubic metre is breached then 110 adults will die this year.

Yes, it’s phoney baloney. It’s just saying there’s an invisible air bogeyman that materialises and kills people whenever naughty homeowners light up open fires or old woodburners.

Immigrants from Beijing, where residents regularly wear surgical masks to avoid breathing in the smog, or from Britain in the 1950s, where dense industrial smoke was a daily fact of life, would laugh at the suggestion that air quality in New Zealand was visibly compromised.

The Hawke’s Bay Regional Council offered loans and grants to encourage woodburner upgrades, and these extended to insulation.

The cost of inserting a woodburner in an open fire: Woodburner (Woodsman insert and flue kit) $1999 (from Mitre 10 on special), permit $325, installation $734, chimney flashing $155, metal hearth extension $225, bend kit $110, mantle deflector $65, remove open fire bricks $250. Total: $3863.

Central government is in fact discouraging the use of woodburners, not because 110 people are dying young each year as the witless propaganda would have you believe, but because the government makes mega millions by generating and selling electricity.

No government is in the firewood business.

A further item in the Herald last week warned that metropolitan Auckland residents may be at risk of a $20,000 fine if they flout the council’s planned ban on indoor open fires.(6)

This possibly prompted a commentator from General Finance to note that Auckland Council “public relations on this issue have been appalling. Firstly, they have not explained to us exactly how bad our air pollution is.” (7)

General Finance also said “the second point is that the use of open fires and older style wood burners has been dropping at a steady rate for the past 30 years as alternative forms of heating become more attractive (such as heat pumps and the use of gas).

“The correct policy is to retain the status quo, as in 10 years time, if the current trend continues, fewer people will using open fires and older style wood burners than today.”

North Shore councillor Chris Darby, who has received a certificate from the Environment Ministry for “making good decisions”, (8) told the New Zealand Herald that “the scientific evidence is scathing. Let’s not shy away from this. People are dying.” (9)

All I can say is “Chris, show us the evidence”.

1. Feedback douses council fireplace ban, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11350894
2. Plan to ban open fireplaces affects thousands of homes, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11340813
3. National Environmental Standards for Air Quality
4. Proposed National Environmental Standards for Air Quality: Report on Submissions
5. Urban Air Pollution, UNEP, http://www.unep.org/urban_environment/Issues/urban_air.asp
6. Open fire could cost you $20,000, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11345836
7. General Finance Mortgage Commentary, https://nz-mg6.mail.yahoo.com/neo/launch?.partner=tnz&.rand=bldrntttha9or#mail
8. Certificate holders – local body elected members, http://www.mfe.govt.nz/rma/making-good-decisions-programme/certificate-holders-local-body-elected-members
9. Feedback douses council fireplace ban, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11350894