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-six people died in 2012 from hazardous substances exposure
 Carbon monoxide caused the most hazardous substances-related deaths
 Over 700 hospital discharges from hazardous substances exposure each year
 Young children at risk from hazardous substances exposure
 Lead absorption notifications have decreases since 2013
 Painters/decorators are the most exposed to lead
 Hazardous substances notifications on the rise in 2014
 The New Zealand Fire Service attends around 1200 hazardous substances incidents every year
 Most calls to the Poisons hotline were related to children

Forty-six people died in 2012 from hazardous substances exposure

In 2012, there were 46 hazardous substances-related deaths registered in New Zealand.  This represents a 49 percent decrease in the number of hazardous substances deaths since 2006 (91 deaths).

Between 2006 and 2012, male mortality rates from a hazardous substance were more than three times the female rates (Figure 1). 

 Figure 1

Carbon monoxide caused the majority of hazardous substances-related deaths

Toxic effects of carbon monoxide caused 324 deaths between 2006 and 2012. Death from carbon monoxide exposure was most common in the 25-44 and 45-64 year age groups. 

Over 700 hospital discharges from hazardous substances exposure each year 

Between 2006 and 2014, there were 6336 hospital discharges attributed to hazardous substances exposure – an average of 704 per year. In 2014, there were 676 hazardous substances-related hospital discharges.

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

Figure 2

Young children at risk from hazardous substances exposure

Children under five years old continue to have the highest hospital discharge rates from hazardous substances in New Zealand compared to all other age groups (Figure 3).  These results are similar to those previously found [1,2].

Figure 3

 Lead absorption notifications have decreased since 2013

There were 130 lead absorption notifications in 2014 compared to 180 notifications in 2013 [3] (Figure 4). 

Figure 4

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.

The 2013 notifications are a mix of EpiSurv and HSDIRT notifications. Since 2013, repeat blood lead level tests taken within 12 months of the original test were excluded from analysis. This may have contributed to the decrease of lead notifications in 2013 and 2014.

Painters/decorators are the most exposed to lead

In 2014, there were 56 lead absorption notifications where occupation was recorded as the source of exposure. The most common occupations were:

  • Painter/decorator (20 notifications)
  • Scrap metal worker (5 notifications)
  • Mechanic (4 notifications)
Painters had the highest number of lead notifications for 2013 as well.

Hazardous substances notifications on the rise in 2014

 There were 99 notifications related to hazardous substances in 2014 compared to 58 in 2013.

There were 49 notifications for both males and females. Across all age groups, the 45-64 year age group had the highest number of notifications. 

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

From 2009 to 2014, the New Zealand Fire Service attended 7,277 hazardous substances incidents (Table 1). This is an average of about 1,212 incidents every year. The highest number of incidents (1,436) was reported in 2010 followed by 1,322 incidents in 2013.

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, 2009-2014

 Alarm Level


2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 Total
1 1142 1413 988 1093 1302 1233 7166
2 10 22 11 18 19 17 97
3   1 1 1 5 9
Total 1152 1436 1000 1112 1322 1255 7277
Source: New Zealand Fire Service, 2015 [***]

Most calls to Poisons hotline were related to children

In 2014, the National Poisons Centre received 10,725 hazardous substance-related calls. Over 50 percent were related to children under five years (Table 2).

Household products were the most common exposure (3906 calls) reported to the NPC, followed by cosmetics (974 calls).

Table 2

 Information about the data

These data excludes poisonings from medicines, drugs, food, alcohol, and carbon monoxide where the source was not from 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 are 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 Injuries Report 2015 (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: