Health effects of hazardous substances

This section provides information that helps us to monitor injuries and diseases from hazardous substances exposure.

These data came from several different data sources likely to collectively capture hazardous substances injuries of different severity. These include deaths, hospital discharges, lead absorption and hazardous substances notifications, hazardous substances incidents, and National Poisons Centre calls.

On this page

Forty-one people died in 2014 from hazardous substances exposure
Carbon monoxide caused the most hazardous substances-related deaths
Over 600 hospital discharges from hazardous substances exposure each year
Young children at risk from hazardous substances exposure
Lead absorption notifications have decreased since 2013
Painters are the occupation most exposed to lead
Hazardous substances notifications increased significantly in 2016 compared to 2015
Fire and Emergency New Zealand attends around 1,200 hazardous substances incidents every year
Most calls to the Poisons hotline were related to children

Forty-one people died in 2014 from hazardous substances exposure

In 2014, there were 41 hazardous substances-related deaths registered in New Zealand. This represents a 55 percent decrease in the number of hazardous substances deaths since 2006 (91 deaths).

Between 2006 and 2014, the male age-standardised mortality rates from a hazardous substance were three to nine times as high as the female rates (Figure 1). 

 Figure 1  

Carbon monoxide caused the majority of hazardous substances-related deaths

Toxic effects of carbon monoxide caused 379 deaths between 2006 and 2014. Death from carbon monoxide exposure was most common in the 25-44 (130 deaths) and 45-64 (150 deaths) year age groups. 

Over 600 hospital discharges from hazardous substances exposure each year 

Between 2006 and 2017, there were 8,342 hospital discharges attributed to hazardous substances exposure – an average of 696 per year. In 2017, there were 728 hazardous substances-related hospital discharges.

Males continued to have higher hospital discharge rates than females (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Young children at risk from hazardous substances exposure

From 2006 to 2016, marked differences were evident in age-specific hazardous substances-related discharge rates. Compared to all other age groups, children under five years old continued to have higher discharge rates from hazardous substances (Figure 3).  These results are similar to those previously found [1,2].

Figure 3

 Lead absorption notifications have decreased since 2013

There were 105 notifications of lead absorption in 2017 compared with 106 notifications in 2016 (Figure 4). 

Figure 4

  1. In 2007, direct laboratory notification was introduced, the non-occupational notifiable blood lead level was lowered from 0.72 to 0.48µmol/l and enhanced occupational screening was introduced in the Auckland region. 
  2. In 2013, the Hazardous Substances Disease and Injury Reporting Tool (HSDIRT) was rolled out to all health districts. Repeat blood lead level tests taken within a year of the original test has been excluded from this data unless further investigation has resulted.

Notifications peaked in 2009, with around 50 lead absorption cases associated with repainting the Auckland Harbour Bridge. This was drawn to the attention of the then Department of Labour (now Worksafe NZ) who revised their Guidelines for the Medical Surveillance of Lead Workers in 2011.  These guidelines state that employers must ensure that medical surveillance is provided to all workers involved in lead work.

Painters were the most exposed to lead

In 2017, there were 39 lead absorption notifications where occupation was recorded as the source of exposure. The most common occupations were:

  • Painter (49 notifications)
  • Radiator repairer (2 notifications)
  • Sandblaster (2 notifications)

Painter was also the most commonly reported occupation in 2016 and 2015.

Hazardous substances notifications similar in 2017 and 2016

There were 107 notifications related to hazardous substances in 2017, in comparison to 105 notifications in 2016.

In 2017, sixty-four percent (69 notifications) of the hazardous substances notifications were males.  Across all age groups, the 25-44 year age group had the highest number of notifications (40 notifications).

Fire and Emergency New Zealand attends around 1,200 hazardous substances incidents every year

From 2009 to 2016, Fire and Emergency New Zealand attended 9,918 hazardous substances incidents (Table 1). This is an average of about 1,239 incidents every year. The highest number of incidents (1,436) was reported in 2010 followed by 1,354 incidents in 2015.

There was a drop in the number of incidents in 2011 and 2012 due to industrial action.

Table 1: Number of hazardous substances incidents for each alarm level, 2009-2016

Total 1152 1436 1000 1112 1322 1256 1354 1286 9918
Alarm level Year Total
2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
1 1142 1413 988 1093 1302 1234 1321 1265 9758
2 10 22 11 18 19 17 30 18 145
3   1 1 1 1 5 2   11
4             1 3 4
Source: Fire and Emergency New Zealand

Most calls to Poisons hotline were related to children

The National Poisons Centre (NPC) received 4,297 calls concerning hazardous substances in five months of 2016. Over 50 percent were related to children under five years (Table 2).

Household products were the most common exposure across all age groups (2,805 calls) (Table 2).

Table 2:

 Information about the data

These data exclude poisonings from medicines, drugs, food, alcohol, and carbon monoxide where the source was not from the combustion of gas from a cylinder.

Most hazardous substances injuries are considered acute (short-term, intense exposure) rather than chronic (prolonged low intensity exposure) events. Chronic harm from hazardous substances is hard to measure because it is often difficult to determine what caused the harm. This means that data on chronic harm is hard to find and likely to underestimate the number of people affected.

For more information about the data, see the pdficon small Annual Hazardous Substances Injury Report 201 (Dec 2017) (pdf, 1.1 MB).

For more information about our hazardous substances surveillance, go to the hazardous substances surveillance webpage


1. McGuigan MA. 1999. Common Culprits in Childhood Poisoning: Epidemiology, Treatment and Parental Advice for Prevention. Pediatric Drugs 1: 313-4.

2. Yates KM. 2003. Accidental poisoning in New Zealand. Emergency Medicine 15(3): 244-9.

3. ESR. 2013. Notifiable and other diseases in New Zealand: Annual Report 2012. Porirua: Institute of Environmental Science and Research Limited. Available online: