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FactCheck: Is Denis Naughten right about the deaths caused by air pollution in Ireland?

The Climate Action Minister says four people die every day due to air pollution. We put his claim to the test.

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CLIMATE ACTION MINISTER Denis Naughten is in Morroco this week for COP22 – the UN climate change conference in Marrakesh.

After arriving, he put out a short video to explain what he was doing there, and what the stakes were for Irish people – including for our health.

…Four people, every single day, are dying from poor air quality.

Is that true? Brian Ahern, on Twitter, brought the claim to our attention, so we checked it out.

(Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie, tweet @TJ_FactCheck, or send us a DM).

Claim: In Ireland, four people die per day due to air pollution
Verdict: Mostly TRUE

What was said:

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

You can watch a video of Denis Naughten’s claim, above.

Our focus is on this statement:

…Four people, every single day, are dying from poor air quality.

You may have noticed that what Naughten actually said in the video was “one in four people” die every day.

This is very clearly the result of the Minister mis-speaking – since at that rate, every last person in the country would be dead within a week.

His spokesperson confirmed for FactCheck that he meant to say “four people” die every day.

This is the claim we are examining in this fact check, since what Naughten said on the video is so obviously not what he intended to say.

Indeed, the original video has been removed since yesterday, but we are reproducing it, with the permission of Minister Naughten’s staff.

For context, Naughten has made similar claims before, including in his address to the Environment Ireland conference in September, when (referring to Northern Ireland and the Republic) he said:

On our small island alone, the mortality impact from air pollution is thought to be in the order of around 2,000 deaths per year.

The Facts

As evidence, Naughten’s spokesperson directed us to a recent report, commissioned by the North-South Ministerial Council, which found that (pg 64):

  • In 2011, exposure to PM10 (particles in the air) caused an estimated 1,148 premature deaths in Ireland.
  • This translates to 3.15 deaths per day.

This figure does not include health harms from other sources of air pollution, and so is likely to be a bit of an understatement.

Indeed, the North-South Ministerial Council report (and Naughten’s spokesperson) also cited the European Environment Agency’s (EEA) 2015 Air Quality in Europe report, which did account for other air pollution sources.

14/12/2009 ESB Poolbeg Power Stations File photo of the ESB power station at Poolbeg in Dublin, in 2009. Source: /Photocall Ireland

Estimates included on page 44 of the EEA report indicate that:

  • Exposure to PM2.5 (fine particles in the air) caused 1,200 premature deaths in Ireland in 2012
  • Exposure to O3 (ozone) caused 30 premature deaths
  • Exposure to NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) caused 0 premature deaths.

That’s a total of 1,230 deaths estimated to have been caused by air pollution in Ireland in 2012, or 3.4 per day.

It must be stressed that these figures are estimates, although they are the most robust and recent estimates available.

They are based on quite complex statistical models which take demographic data (such as life expectancy) from reports by the UN and WHO, and cross-reference them with data on the health risks of air pollution (from the WHO, and EEA).

The report estimated the total aggregate “years of life lost” in each country due to exposure to each air pollutant, and using life expectancy data, extrapolated an estimate of the number of premature, preventable deaths resulting from air pollution, in 2012.

Conclusion

Despite undermining his own statement with an unfortunate gaffe, Denis Naughten’s actual claim (four deaths per day) almost accurately reflects the best available evidence, which indicates a figure of 3.4 deaths per day.

For these reasons, we rate his claim Mostly TRUE.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here.

For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here

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