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.

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Forty-four people died in 2013 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
The New Zealand Fire Service attends around 1200 hazardous substances incidents every year
Most calls to the Poisons hotline were related to children

Forty-four people died in 2013 from hazardous substances exposure

In 2013, there were 44 hazardous substances-related deaths registered in New Zealand. This represents a 52 percent decrease in the number of hazardous substances deaths since 2006 (91 deaths).

Between 2006 and 2013, 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 354 deaths between 2006 and 2013. Death from carbon monoxide exposure was most common in the 25-44 and 45-64 year age groups. 

Over 600 hospital discharges from hazardous substances exposure each year 

Between 2006 and 2015, there were 6,971 hospital discharges attributed to hazardous substances exposure – an average of 697 per year. In 2015, there were 632 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 2015, 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 106 notifications of lead absorption in 2016 compared with 121 notifications in 2015 (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 2016, there were 51 lead absorption notifications where occupation was recorded as the source of exposure. The most common occupations were:

  • Painter (29 notifications)
  • Foundry worker (3 notifications)
  • Scrap metal worker (3 notifications)

Painter was also the most commonly reported occupation in 2015 and 2014.

Hazardous substances notifications increased significantly in 2016 compared to 2015

There were 104 notifications related to hazardous substances in 2016, this was a significant increase compared to 61 notifications in 2015.

In 2016, sixty-four percent (67 notifications) of the hazardous substances notifications were males.  Across all age groups, the 25-44 year age group had the highest number of notifications (39 notifications).

The New Zealand Fire Service attends around 1,200 hazardous substances incidents every year

From 2009 to 2015, the New Zealand Fire Service attended 8,632 hazardous substances incidents (Table 1). This is an average of about 1,233 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 in the New Zealand Fire Service.

Table 1: Number of hazardous substances incidents for each alarm level, 2009-2015

Total 1152 1436 1000 1112 1322 1256 1354 8632
Alarm level Year Total
2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
1 1142 1413 988 1093 1302 1234 1321 8493
2 10 22 11 18 19 17 30 127
3   1 1 1 1 5 2 11
4             1 1
Source: New Zealand Fire Service

Most calls to Poisons hotline were related to children

The National Poisons Centre (NPC) received 8,220 calls concerning hazardous substances in nine months of 2015. Over 50 percent were related to children under five years (Table 2).

Household products were the most common exposure (5,047 calls) reported to the NPC, followed by cosmetics (1,008 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 2016 (Dec 2016) (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: