Dust from unsealed roads is killing an estimated one Northlander every two years and costing the health sector nearly $3 million annually, a new study has found.
The study, a first in New Zealand - prepared by Emission Impossible for the Ministry of Health - assessed chronic health impacts and costs of exposure to air pollution from all unsealed roads in Northland.
It showed the national environment standards in Northland were breached 27 times when just one breach was allowed within 12 months.
A mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets— both organic and inorganic such as dust, pollen, soot, smoke and liquid suspended in air, many of which are hazardous— are taken into consideration when measuring air pollution.
Sixty per cent of Northland's 5880km of roads, excluding 750km of state highways, are unsealed.
Authors of the study estimated the annual cost of health impacts from long-term exposure to dust near all unsealed roads in Northland at $2.7m based on cases of premature mortality, cardiovascular, respiratory and hospital admissions, and restricted activity days.
The annual cost of premature mortality was estimated at $2.72m, cardiovascular hospital admissions $950, respiratory hospital admissions $957 and a further $15,000 for restricted activity days.
The Pipiwai Titoki Advocacy for Community Health and Safety Group is calling on the Northland Regional Council to carry out more dust monitoring near unsealed roads.
Group spokeswoman Alex Wright - who fought for years to get Wright Rd, where she lives, sealed - said her members knew first-hand how bad air quality was from living next to an unsealed road and fighting for it to be sealed.
The Northland Regional Council said it was meeting its statutory obligations to check air quality and did more monitoring for dust particles adjacent to unsealed roads than any other council in New Zealand.
"The regional council, the Northland District Health Board and the Whangārei, Far North and Kaipara District Councils recognised some years ago there are both nuisance and potentially health-related problems associated with dust from unsealed roads," NRC Regulatory Services Manager Colin Dall said.
Dall said that, in 2014, Northland's Regional Transport Committee – which included representatives of all four Northland councils and the New Zealand Transport Agency – approved the 'Regional Dust from Unsealed Roads Mitigation Framework'.
"Under this framework, the regional council monitors dust from unsealed roads and provides the monitoring results to the relevant district councils to help them to prioritise sites for dust mitigation measures."
Dall said the NRC carried out the monitoring every summer, when dust issues were typically at their worst, and has monitored a total of 35 roadside sites since 2013.
He said the NRC consulted with district councils to identify potential monitoring sites and contacted nearby property owners to find out if they were prepared to have a dust monitor deployed on their property and provided the power supply required to operate the monitor.
Anil Shetty, public health strategist at the Northland District Health Board, said the latest report would be valuable and further strengthened advocacy and submissions to the relevant authorities for action on a critical issue.
"Northland Public Health have been actively advocating to address dust generated by heavy vehicular (forestry) movements on rural unsealed roads, especially along the unsealed roads with higher population density," Shetty said.
Northland DHB was actively working with community groups affected by unsealed roads, he said, and has made several submissions to the territorial authorities in the region in recent years.
The estimated $2.7m in health cost was based on houses located 30 metres away from unsealed roads.