Story: Public health

Page 3. Environmental health

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Sanitation and water

In the 19th century poor public sanitation caused high death and illness rates from infectious diseases such as typhoid. Banning cesspits and installing sewers led to a reduction in these diseases.

Treatment of drinking water followed much later. Most communities drank water piped straight from a river or lake until chlorination was introduced from the 1950s.

Something in the water

Since the Second World War there have been two major disease outbreaks caused by contaminated water. In 1984 around 3,500 people in Queenstown became ill with gastroenteritis after a blocked sewer overflowed into a lake near the public water supply. In 2016 a campylobacter outbreak in Havelock North made over 5,000 people violently ill and was associated with three deaths. The disease was traced to a contaminated pond close to a bore from which drinking water was pumped.

Even in the early 2000s, an estimated 500,000 people were drinking water that did not meet (voluntary) standards. New Zealand had higher rates of gastro-intestinal diseases than countries such as Australia, Canada and the UK – this was partially attributed to contaminated drinking water. The Health (Drinking Water) Amendment Act 2007 compelled public water suppliers to ensure water was safe.


The effect of poor and crowded housing on public health was recognised in the 19th century. Courts could declare buildings unfit to live in and councils could demolish unsafe or insanitary buildings, but these powers were rarely used – neither authority was keen to interfere in the private housing market.

From the beginning of the 20th century, flush toilets, sinks, baths, washtubs and spouting became more common in the bigger towns and cities. Houses were larger and more weathertight. The development of the electricity grid made hot water instantly available for personal and domestic cleaning. Older houses and rental properties were not always so well-equipped, which contributed to the government decision to build state houses in 1906, and on a much larger scale from the late 1930s.

From 1935 councils had to conduct housing surveys. In Auckland these revealed significant overcrowding, particularly among Māori and Pasifika families after the Second World War. Overcrowding was linked to high rates of illnesses such as tuberculosis. While overcrowding decreased overall from the 1960s, it increased in areas such as South Auckland, contributing to an epidemic of meningococcal disease in the 1990s and 2000s.

Insulation of new homes was not compulsory until 1977. By the early 2000s about half of all houses had only partial insulation and a quarter had none. Cold houses affected health – New Zealand had higher winter mortality rates than colder northern European countries. From 1996 government insulation and heating subsidies were available for lower-income earners. In 2009 subsidies were extended to all pre-2000 houses.

The Building Act 1991 was less prescriptive than earlier legislation and allowed the use of untreated framing timber. In some dwellings the cladding was poorly weatherproofed, which caused building materials to deteriorate or rot. High levels of damp and mould in these houses were linked to ill health, particularly respiratory conditions such as asthma. Building regulations were subsequently strengthened and in 2017 the Healthy Homes Guarantee Act set standards for rental homes that required them to be warm, dry and well-ventilated. From 1 July 2019 landlords signing any new tenancy agreement had to have installed underfloor (where practicable) and ceiling insulation, or provided a heating source that ensured the home was warm and dry. All rental accommodation must meet these standards by 1 July 2021. Grants are available to help landlords meet these requirements. 

Clean air

Air pollution, caused by industrial manufacturing and the burning of coal and waste, was a problem in towns and cities from the mid-19th century. It contributed to respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis and asthma.

From the early 20th century town-planning strategies separated industrial and residential areas, but did not reduce or manage pollution. Clean-air zones were first introduced in Christchurch in the 1960s. Government legislation led to maximum allowable pollution levels, increased monitoring and clean-air zones in some urban areas. Lead petrol for vehicles was phased out between the mid-1980s and the 1990s.

Air pollution remains a public health issue in the 21st century. A 2012 report found that it was associated with 1,175 premature deaths, 607 extra hospital admissions for respiratory and heart illnesses, and 1.49 million restricted-activity days.


Smoke-free environments were a new focus from the 1980s. An anti-smoking public health campaign, the ‘Great Smokefree Week’, was held in 1986. Domestic airlines banned smoking in 1987.

Smoking room

After 1990 some indoor workplaces had special ventilated smoking rooms. These were banned in 2004, except that rest homes and care facilities were allowed to have smoking rooms for residents. Rmployees and visitors could not use these rooms.

The Smoke-free Environments Act 1990 restricted smoking indoors. Employers had to provide smoke-free and designated smoking areas. Smoking was banned on passenger aircraft and restricted to certain areas on ships and trains, and in passenger lounges and restaurants. Smoking in bars was still permitted.

Smoking in all indoor workplaces, including bars, and all indoor and outdoor areas at schools and early childhood centres, was banned in 2004. New Zealand became the third country in the world to introduce smoke-free bars and restaurants.

In 2011 all prisons became smoke-free. Some councils discouraged smoking in outdoor public areas such as parks and playgrounds – South Taranaki District Council was the first in 2005. Smoke-free policies have also been introduced at beaches and shopping malls, and for outdoor dining areas.

In 2019, the Labour-led government banned smoking in cars carrying children under 18 years of age.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Public health - Environmental health', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 7 Jul 2019 with assistance from Richard Edwards