Hospitals should not be smoking a giant cigarette

12 November 2016

Despite New Zealand being a signatory to the new Paris climate agreement, the Ministry of Health is considering the use of coal in Christchurch Hospital’s boiler. OraTaiao, the New Zealand Climate and Health Council and the New Zealand Medical Students’ Association (NZMSA) say to do so would be a mistake for the climate and for health. Although coal burning may achieve short-term financial savings, it is a false economy. Coal burning is inconsistent with the Ministry’s legislated responsibility to protect health. 

OraTaiao and the NZMSA are jointly urging the Ministry to support Christchurch Hospital’s switch to lower emission wood waste rather than coal.

While coal was historically useful in providing energy for economic development, mining and burning coal has also come at a heavy price to human wellbeing. At the local level, adverse effects include the hazards of mining and environmental contamination by mineral residues and air pollution. At a global level, coal is one of the worst possible fuels for the climate. Now that safer alternatives are available, continued use of coal is indefensible. 

“People who live in cities with higher exposure to coal combustion have a higher risk of cardiovascular death, and suffer higher levels of respiratory disease such as asthma and chronic bronchitis,” says George Laking, a cancer specialist and OraTaiao executive member. 

“A coal-burning boiler is like the hospital chain-smoking a giant cigarette. The Ministry must support hospitals as they kick this dangerous habit.”

In 2013 the World Health Organization (WHO) found the average for very small airborne particles (PM2.5) in Christchurch was more than double that of Auckland, and comfortably in breach of guidelines for lung-damaging pollutants. PM2,5 levels contribute to shorter lives and worse quality of life. As the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) states, a modern wood burner can produce 80 percent fewer particulate emissions than coal – which makes wood a healthier and more sustainable long-term investment.

As well as local harms, greenhouse gas and black carbon emissions from coal are heating up our planet, the groups say. 

“Climate change impacts upon human health through increased heatwaves, extreme weather, floods, and threats to agricultural and geopolitical security,” says Carmen Chan from the New Zealand Medical Students’ Association.

“Global health experts are clear that continued global warming will ‘undermine the last half century of gains in development and global health’.”

In a breath-taking irony, Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) has recently been awarded an Energy-Mark Bronze Award for its installation of high tech wood waste burners at Burwood Hospital. Canterbury DHB CEO David Meates said, “The next step for CDHB is to build on our achievement in the future through meeting the requirements for Energy-Mark Silver certification, and then Energy-Mark Gold.”

Its Hillmorton site also already has a high tech, low pollution wood waste burner.

“The DHB won’t be able to achieve this goal by burning coal to heat the new Christchurch Hospital. Choosing coal is more like Energy-Mark Arsenic,” says Dr Laking.

As a signatory to the COP21 Paris Agreement, New Zealand has committed to renewable energies such as plantation wood waste.

“Our health services should be at the vanguard of this commitment. As health bodies worldwide are urging governments to phase out coal power, it is imperative New Zealand’s district health boards are enabled to do the same,” says Dr Laking.


Statements from New Zealand Medical Students Organisations

Medical students from around the country have strongly objected to the step backwards in Christchurch District Health Board’s environmental sustainability:

The Christchurch Medical Students’ Association is unequivocal in its opposition to retaining a coal boiler in Christchurch Hospital. We must consider both the environmental as well as the medical implications of having a coal boiler when the alternatives are much safer on both counts. The CDHB is in a position to make a positive and patient-centred statement by using cleaner technology. With the rebuild, many other buildings throughout the city are moving away from coal power, and we urge Christchurch Hospital to stay ahead of the curve and do the same.
Marcus Bentley, President of the Christchurch Medical Students’ Association

The Wellington Medical Students’ Association fundamentally disagrees with the retention of a coal boiler at the Christchurch hospital. The health care system in New Zealand needs to be future focussed. Climate change is going to present significant challenges for health in the future, and so every little bit we can do to reduce emissions matters. It might save money in the short-term, but we have to be forward looking.
Mike Peebles, President of the Wellington Medical Student’s Association

The Auckland Medical Students’ Association insists that the Canterbury District Health Board reconsider and change its stance in retaining the use of a coal boiler at the Christchurch hospital. We need to be proactive and lead the way to a more sustainable future. Climate change is a pressing matter and its effects are already impacting upon the health of countless communities. We ask our future colleagues at CDHB to be the change that we need. Let us live up to our clean and green image.
Andrew Thushyanthan, President of the Auckland Medical Students’ Association

The New Zealand Medical Students’ Association strongly urges the Canterbury District Health Board to not take a step backwards and use coal for Christchurch Hospital’s boiler. Burning coal is widely recognised to produce carcinogenic pollutants as well as drive global climate change. It makes little sense to use a boiler that makes people sick to help run a hospital that is trying to make people better. We call on the CDHB to lead from the front in improving health by installing a wood or gas powered boiler rather than a polluting coal powered one.
David Bassett, Vice-President External, New Zealand Medical Students’ Association (NZMSA)

As a nation-wide global health interest group, Medical Students for Global Awareness (MSGA) strongly disagrees with the use of coal in the boiler for the new Christchurch Hospital. The health care system of New Zealand cannot claim to be improving the health of our population while simultaneously powering hospitals with fossil fuels that have been shown to negatively affect communities around the world through pollution and climate change. We would urge the Canterbury District Health Board to rethink their decision and to instead make a tangible commitment towards a more sustainable future through the selection of a clean alternative to coal.
Apurva Kasture, National Coordinator, Medical Students for Global Awareness (MSGA)


OraTaiao: The New Zealand Climate and Health Council are health professionals concerned with climate change as a serious public health threat. They also promote the positive health gains that can be achieved through action to address climate change. See:

Global Health Statement to G7 Nations on Coal and Health:

NZ specific climate-health information in the NZ Medical Journal:
‘Health and equity impacts of climate change in Aotearoa-New Zealand, and health gains from climate action’.

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