Who is more at risk?
Some people are more at risk from environmental hazards than others. People can be more at risk to environmental hazards if they are [1,2]:
- more exposed to environmental hazards
- more sensitive to the effects
- less able to cope with the effects.
Potentially at-risk groups include:
- infants and children
- older adults
- Māori and Pacific peoples
- low-income groups
- people with chronic illness or disability
- people who are more exposed to environmental hazards where they live and work.
Infants and children
Infants and children are more susceptible than adults to a range of environmental hazards, including air pollution, poor quality housing, second-hand smoke, hazardous substances and heat exposure.
Children are particularly affected by the environment due to several reasons:
- Children are still developing and growing, which makes them more susceptible to toxins and illness.
- Children’s breathing rate is higher than adults, making them more susceptible to air pollution.
- Children have limited mobility, so spend longer in one place and must depend on others to move them out of dangerous areas.
- Their behaviour includes lots of hand-to-mouth activity, which exposes them more to some hazards (e.g. lead from soil).
- Children spend most of their time in the home environment.
- Children’s younger age and longer life expectancy means that they may yet be affected by some hazardous substances with long lag (latency) periods.
Pregnant women and their unborn child may also be at increased risk from environmental hazards.
For population statistics about children, go to the age profile webpage.
Older adults (generally defined as those aged 65 years and over) can be more affected by environmental hazards.
- Older adults may have limited mobility, strength and balance. This means they are in one place for longer periods, and depend on others to move them out of dangerous areas.
- Older adults have higher rates of chronic disease, which can make them more sensitive to environmental hazards like air pollution.
- Older adults are more sensitive to dehydration on very hot days, and the effects of cold on cold days.
In particular, older people who live alone may be at more risk from environmental hazards, particularly if they don’t have other people to help them if needed.
For population statistics about older adults, go to the age profile webpage.
Māori are often more vulnerable to environmental risks, similar to indigenous populations in many other countries. There are several reasons.
- Māori can be more exposed to environmental risks, for example having higher rates of second-hand smoke exposure.
- Māori can be more sensitive to environmental changes. For example, the Māori economy is especially reliant on primary industries like farming, which are sensitive to climate change .
- Māori can have less capacity to respond to environmental risks. For example, Māori have disproportionately low incomes compared to many other ethnic groups.
However, these causes of vulnerability need to be balanced against factors that will increase their coping capacity. In general, Māori have strong and supportive whānau/community networks. Many Māori also possess traditional knowledge about the environment that is a valuable asset in a changing environment.
For population statistics about Māori, go to the ethnic profile webpage.
Pacific peoples living in New Zealand may be at increased risk from environmental hazards. Reasons include:
- Pacific peoples may be more exposed to environmental risks, for example second-hand smoke, household crowding, and the urban environment.
- Pacific peoples have disproportionately low incomes compared to other people, which may make them less able to cope with the effects of environmental hazards.
For population statistics about Pacific peoples, go to the ethnic profile webpage.
People with lower socioeconomic status
People with lower socioeconomic status often have less capacity to cope with the effects of environmental risks. For example, people on low incomes generally have fewer resources to protect themselves from environmental hazards.
- They may not be able to afford good quality housing or a house large enough for their family.
- They may not be able to afford to heat their house adequately or insulate it.
- They may not have money to repaint their house before it gets in poor condition, potentially exposing them to lead paint dust.
- They may not have a car to drive to health care services, or to move away from environmental hazards such as a flood risk.
- They may live closer to environmental hazards such as industrial sites or main transport routes.
- They may work and live with much higher levels of environmental stress (such as noise, overcrowding, and less security), which may put them at higher risk of psycho-social health problems.
A related measure is socioeconomic deprivation. The New Zealand Index of Deprivation (NZDep) provides a summary deprivation score for small areas (meshblocks and census area units) . The NZDep can be used to identify areas where people are more socioeconomically deprived.
The NZDep index incorporates low income, as well as a range of other socioeconomic factors (such as people who are renting, unemployed, lack qualifications, single-parent families, no access to a vehicle).
For statistics about socioeconomic deprivation and NZDep, go to the socioeconomic deprivation profile webpage.
People with chronic health conditions
People with chronic health conditions may be more susceptible to environmental hazards. Health conditions that may increase people’s susceptibility include:
- cardiovascular diseases, such as heart disease and stroke
- respiratory diseases, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- psychological distress
- immune-deficiency, like organ transplant or HIV infection.
People with chronic health conditions may be at increased risk from environmental hazards, such as:
- infectious diseases, due to weak body defences
- effects of air pollution (particularly among people with chronic lung diseases, asthma, and cardiovascular disease), as their lungs are already working hard to cope at ‘normal’ levels of air pollution
- skin cancer (among people with low immunity, such as those who have had an organ transplant or HIV infection).
For statistics about people with chronic health conditions, go to the people living with a disability webpage.
People exposed to environmental hazards where they live and work
Some people can have higher levels of exposure to environmental hazards due to where they work and live. Examples include:
- People living in poor quality housing, particularly cold and damp houses
- People who live close to main roads, who may be exposed to higher levels of air pollution and traffic noise
- People who work in hazardous jobs, where they are exposed to hazardous substances or heavy machinery
- People living in urban areas, who may be more exposed to air pollution and traffic noise
- People living in rural areas, who are more exposed to untreated drinking water, lack of reticulated sewerage systems and livestock (increasing the risk of water-borne disease and zoonotic disease), and who have longer distances to travel to health services.
1. DANIDA. 2000. Who Suffers? Identifying the Vulnerable Groups. Paper presented at the DANIDA Workshop Papers: Improving the Urban Environment and Reducing Poverty, Copenhagen, Denmark.
2. Ebi K, Kovats R, Menne B. 2006. An Approach for Assessing Human Health Vulnerability and Public Health Interventions to Adapt to Climate Change. Environmental Health Perspectives 114(12): 1930-1934. doi: 10.1289/ehp.8430
3. Reisinger A, Kitching R, Chiew F, Hughes L, Newton P, Schuster S, et al. 2014. Australasia. In V Barros, C Field, D Dokken, M Mastrandrea, K Mach, T Bilir, M Chatterjee, K Ebi, Y Estrada, R Genova, B Girma, E Kissel, A Levy, S MacCracken, P Mastrandrea and L White (Eds.), Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part B: Regional Aspects Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.
4. Atkinson J, Salmond C, Crampton P. 2014. NZDep2013 Index of Deprivation. Wellington: Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington. Available online: http://www.otago.ac.nz/wellington/research/hirp/otago020194.html