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Vegetation diversity protects against childhood asthma: results from a large New Zealand birth cohort

Nature Plantsvolume 4pages358364 (2018) | Download Citation


We assessed the association between the natural environment and asthma in 49,956 New Zealand children born in 1998 and followed up until 2016 using routinely collected data. Children who lived in greener areas, as measured by the normalized difference vegetation index, were less likely to be asthmatic: a 1 s.d. increase in normalized difference vegetation index was associated with a 6.0% (95% CI 1.9–9.9%) lower risk of asthma. Vegetation diversity was also protective: a 1 s.d. increase in the number of natural land-cover types in a child’s residential meshblock was associated with a 6.7% (95% CI 1.5–11.5%) lower risk. However, not all land-cover types were protective. A 1 s.d. increase in the area covered by gorse (Ulex europaeus) or exotic conifers, both non-native, low-biodiversity land-cover types, was associated with a 3.2% (95% CI 0.0–6.0%) and 4.2% (95% CI 0.9–7.5%) increased risk of asthma, respectively. The results suggest that exposure to greenness and vegetation diversity may be protective of asthma.

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Thanks to C. Brooks for his valuable insights on mechanisms linking the natural environment and asthma. The results in this paper are not official statistics. They have been created for research purposes from the IDI, managed by Statistics NZ. The opinions, findings, recommendations and conclusions expressed in this paper are those of the authors, not Statistics NZ. Access to the anonymized data used in this study was provided by Statistics NZ under the security and confidentiality provisions of the Statistics Act 1975. Only people authorized by the Statistics Act 1975 are allowed to see data about a particular person, household, business or organization, and the results in this paper have been confidentialized to protect these groups from identification and to keep their data safe. Careful consideration has been given to the privacy, security and confidentiality issues associated with using administrative and survey data in the IDI. Further detail can be found in the privacy impact assessment for the IDI available from

Author information


  1. Center for Public Health Research, Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand

    • Geoffrey H. Donovan
    •  & Jeroen Douwes
  2. USDA Forest Service, PNW Research Station, Portland, OR, USA

    • Geoffrey H. Donovan
    •  & Demetrios Gatziolis
  3. National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, Auckland, New Zealand

    • Ian Longley


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G.H.D. developed the research idea with J.D., conducted the analysis and took the lead on writing the paper. D.G. conducted all geo-spatial analysis and wrote the geo-spatial section of the methods. I.L. provided air quality data, wrote the air-quality section of the methods and reviewed drafts of the paper. J.D. developed the research idea with G.H.D., wrote significant parts of the paper and reviewed multiple drafts of the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Geoffrey H. Donovan.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Table 1

    Definitions of land-cover types for New Zealand land-cover database (LCDB) version 4.1 (1 denotes land-cover types included in variable describing the total number of natural land-cover types in a child’s residential mesh-block; 2 denotes land-cover types included in variable describing number of native land-cover types)

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