Back in February, I reported on a brief presentation I made to the District Health Board, urging them to play a more proactive public health advocacy role, as mandated by the Public Health and Disabilities Act.

I cited a number of examples — harmful particulate pollution in the air, safe drinking water and healthy recreational waterways, public exposure to toxic chemicals — where the DHB’s public silence and passivity represented a failure of responsibility.

Specifically, with respect to the Regional Council’s need to regulate PM10 pollution caused by woodburners, I argued:

“The adverse health consequences of fine particle pollutants is irrefutably established. A report published last week in the NZ Medical Journal called NZ’s care for respiratory illnesses like asthma “deplorable in a First World country.” Yet some local elected officials are making downright stupid and misleading statements about the health effects of PM10 so as to fuel public opposition to more stringent regulation. A public consultation period is now underway, with the public largely ignorant of the health implications. Where is the DHB’s forceful and public explanation of how serious the health hazard — and need to act — actually is?”

In March, Win Bennett, DHB’s General Manager, Planning Funding and Performance, responded in a letter:

“Staff within the DHB are currently working on a health impact assessment of the Regional Council’s proposed Clean Heat policy. The health effects of PM10 are not the issue here, but rather the unintended consequences which the Clean Heat policy may produce and the need to weigh up the relative health benefits and adverse events. This is a significant piece of work which will be made public when completed. Our Medical Officer of Health, Dr Caroline McElnay, has already made public statements, via national radio, on the general impact of PM10 on health.”

Sorry, not good enough.

1. While DHB prepares its “health impact assessment,” the window for public comment on the HBRC’s proposed regulations has closed, without the DHB being heard from on the fundamental health threat driving the proposal. Timing is everything. Most members of the public have commented on the proposal without any valid sense of the health dangers posed by inaction. And so we’ve had a chorus of “all cost and no benefit.”

2. General comments made on national radio hardly qualify as a serious undertaking to inform the public here in Hawke’s Bay regarding the issues at hand. Sustained local media coverage, a definitive interview or letter to the editor in Hawke’s Bay Today, and better still, a formal public submission to the Regional Council are the kinds of communications called for by the seriousness of the policy choices before us … especially in view of the disinformation deliberately spewed by some local elected representatives.

3. The very framing of the DHB’s assessment as dealing with “unintended consequences” indicates that DHB has accepted the ridiculous notion — again, propagated by some hysterical elected officials — that Clean Heat Gestapo are going to invade citizens’ homes and rip out their heating, leaving them to lose fingers and toes to frostbite before dying of pneumonia. An absurd scenario, calculated to alarm people who don’t know any better.

In short, the DHB has done nothing that might have adequately informed the public in a timely fashion regarding the health implications of PM10 regulation. By its well-timed silence, it is complicit in the disinformation campaign on the issue. If its “health impact assessment” ever does arrive, it will be moot.

So much for the DHB’s public health advocacy role.

Tom Belford

P.S. While I’m at it, here’s a recent BayBuzz post on the full health and economic costs of polluted air in NZ.

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