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Breathing new life into air qualityAir quality with Alison Collings

If you want to get the next generation interested in air quality issues, you’ll need to pull some strings. Well, that’s one way to get young people’s attention, according to Alison Collings, who is using puppets to teach children about the importance of clean air in the Waikato region.

Alison got her start in environmental education a few years back with her 'Little Bang Fairy Show', an environmental musical puppet show. A Creative NZ grant from the Hauraki District Council helped her develop that project. These days she’s added more environmental themes to her work, including an air quality-focused puppet show she’s been taking to schools as part of the Waikato Regional Council’s air quality education programme.

Fine particles (or PM10) are extremely small – less than 10 microns (1000 microns = 1 millimetre) – so when we breathe them in, they can easily be absorbed by our lungs. People can get sick – or in severe cases, even die. People who are particularly sensitive to the effects of PM10 in our air include those with respiratory problems (such as asthmatics), small children, and the elderly. High levels of PM10 also reduce visibility, which if severe can affect the safety of people moving around our urban areas on foot or by road.

Most of the PM10 in Hamilton, Taupō, Te Kuiti, Tokoroa and Putaruru comes from home fires, mainly from burning wood in winter. Other sources such as industry and emissions from motor vehicles can also contribute to air pollution. PM10 levels throughout the Waikato region are good or acceptable for most of the year, but every year in some locations there are a few days (typically on calm winter days) where levels exceed the National Environmental Standard (NES) as well as regional guidelines. In 2011-2013, that happened less than 21 times each year. That’s down from a 10-year peak of 50 in 2004 – but we still need do better.

That’s where Alison comes in, providing a memorable and unique way to take the air quality message to children, their families and friends. After a show, Alison says the children are often reluctant to shift and she sometimes gets asked if she can do another show, there and then. “They come up to me afterwards to meet the puppets and see the stage and sets. I always encourage them that if they want to they can put together a puppet show from recycled goods as well.” With the council’s help, she has also now created a book with a song on CD to go with the shows.

“I got started in this because I am extremely interested in anything environmental,” says Alison. “Through my work with the council on air quality, I’ve now learned a lot more about why it is important. I also get a great deal of satisfaction out of performing for children: their enthusiasm and natural curiosity are ‘wages for the soul’.”

Read other stories from people living in our region.