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Dublin: 4 °C Friday 25 April, 2014

“It creeps menacingly”: When deadly smog choked Dublin’s skies

In 1982, a number of deaths in Dublin were directly connected to high levels of smog. What happened next?

IN 1989, A New York Times article informed readers about an eerie substance that was invading Dublin on a regular basis.

It “creeps menacingly through doors and windows here”, warned Sheila Rule in ‘Dublin Journal’.

“It attacks throats and lungs. It sometimes invades Dublin to such a degree that night appears to fall by midday”.

What was Rule warning American readers about? Smog.

A photo of Ballyfermot in 1988 from In Dublin magazine, scanned by Brand New Retro

This dense mixture of smoke and fog – by its very nature thick, polluting and bad for the lungs – had grown to become a huge issue in Dublin by the late 1980s.

Thanks to bituminous (smoky) coal fires burning in the fair city, the resulting smoke and ashes had added up to become an inescapable problem, particularly on cold and windless nights when the smog became trapped under a blanket of warm air (known as a ‘thermal inversion’).

The problem was so bad that in 1989, Deputy Ruairi Quinn spoke of his frustration at the situation, saying that “We have had promises for the future, we have heard all sorts of promises,” about what the Government would do about smog. He questioned who was benefitting from the sale of the coal, and accused the Minister of State with responsibility for environmental protection, Mary Harney, as being “totally negligent in the execution of her duties”, due to political and personal differences with the Minister for the Environment.

She informed him that they were working towards a 1993 deadline, and that the Government was considering a number of options – and urged people who could afford low-smoke fuels to use them.

Menaced

Naturally, Dublin was not the only capital city to experience the thick hug of smog. London was menaced by the Great Smog in 1952, when smog – caused by industrial pollution and domestic coal-burning – hung over the city from 5 to 8 December, affecting transport and leading to the deaths of 4,000 people.

London during the Great Smog of 1952 Pic: Wikimedia Commons

The British government’s solution was to introduce a ban on emissions of black smoke, as well as passing laws so that people living in urban areas and those involved in industry would have to use smokeless fuels.

Some 30 years later, in 1982, Dublin experienced its own serious smog episode. A spike in fatality rates was noted that year, directly corresponding with the increase in smog. According to Professor Luke Clancy, there were an extra 33 deaths per 100,000 people.

The smog persisted – notably, an oil crisis occured in the 1970s and 1980s, which would have led to reliance on coal – as the Government attempted to find some solution to the problem.

In 1988, the then-Minister for Health, Dr Rory O’Hanlon said that in December of 1987, “when the smog reached serious levels in part of the city”, the corporation alerted the public and health professionals to the situation.

O’Hanlon said it was the Minister for the Environment who “has responsibility for statutory controls to protect the public and the environment from the effects of air pollution”, and that he himself had taken up the matter with the Minister. A committee of ministers had been set up, he told Fine Gael Deputy Jim Mitchell, to focus on smog and its effect on public health.

By the late 1980s, the smog issue was firmly on the public agenda, as evidenced by this In Dublin cover:

Pic: Brand New Retro

The In Dublin article points out that in 1982, 1800 microgrammes of smoke per cubic metre were recorded, which was eight times higher than the EEC limit (250mg per cubic metre).

“I will solve this problem”

In November 1988, Minister Pádraig Flynn told the Dáil that air in Dublin had recently breached both EC and national air quality standards for smoke.

Breaches of the daily value for more than three consecutive days were recorded in Ballyfermot, Cabra, Crumlin, Rathmines, Mountjoy Square, Quarryvale and Neilstown.

At that point, discussions were well underway in Government on how to tackle the problem. Minister Flynn assured that a number of measures were in place, such as a programme to equip local authority houses and flats with smokeless heating systems. He also noted that an information campaign to encourage the use of smokeless fuels and heating systems was being prepared (this had taken place by March 1989), as was a smog alert system.

The price of smokeless coal was a barrier for some to ensuring a smoke-free home, and Minister Flynn met with members of the fuel industry that led to a drop in price of such coal, and an increased availability and promotion of smokeless fuels.

The now-Justice Minister, then a Deputy, Alan Shatter, was not satisfied with Minister Flynn’s declaration that he was “pressing the matter”.

“If necessary, bring in emergency legislation,” he urged.

If necessary the Minister could do that and he would get the support of Members of the House in doing it.

“Smog has been around a long time and I am the first person who tried to do something about it,” replied Flynn.

Shatter shot back: “What the Minister is doing is painfully ineffective.”

“Just like I solved the problem of fish kills, I will solve this too,” was Minister Flynn’s last word in that discussion.

A photo from In Dublin magazine, scanned by Brand New Retro

Regulations

In 1987, a first attempt at remedying the situation appeared with the new Air Pollution Act. Although in March 1989 Minister Flynn appeared to reject the suggestion of a ban on selling bituminous coal, saying “If one were even to contemplate that, we could end up in a worse pickle than the one in which we are now”, this was followed in 1990 by the Marketing, Sale and Distribution of Fuels Regulation.

These latter regulations brought a ban into force that covered the sale of bituminous (smoky) coal – but not the burning of it.

While Dublin was the main part of the country affected by high levels of smog, other cities would also have experienced the effects of the burning of smoky coal, so the regulations were soon extended to more and more urban areas.

As the regulations covered more and more locations, coal merchants became concerned. A 2001 article in the Western People said that coal and fuel merchants were to hold a meeting to discuss the ban. As mentioned above, the Environment Minister had to meet with fuel industry members to try and bring down the price of smokeless coal, and ensure more of it was available.

Today

By the mid-nineties, the new laws were clearly having some effect – there was “satisfactory air quality in monitored areas, with no exceedences”, but there had been 13 cases of ‘summertime smog’ since 1 January 1995.

Some 22 years after the first major changes were introduced, in August 2012 it became an offence to burn smoky coal in any private dwelling in areas where its sale was also banned, thanks to the Air Pollution Act (Marketing, Sale, Distribution and Burning of Specified Fuels) Regulations 2012.

Seven new towns will be made smokeless in May of this year, and in some cases the towns that already had a ban in place had their boundaries extended to cover areas just outside them.

According to The Department of the Environment:

Air quality monitoring by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has shown levels of particulate matter (PM10) are lower in these areas than in towns where the ban does not apply.

The entire city and county area of Dublin is now covered under the ban – but the current Environment Minister Phil Hogan says that enforcement of a nationwide ban would be difficult.

Three decades after the smog led to people losing their lives, air quality is still monitored and the vast majority of Irish people are not allowed to burn smoky coal in their home. It took many years and energetic political discussion to get regulations in place, but one thing is clear – as things stand, Dublin, and the rest of Ireland, will never be menaced by the smog of old again.

Read: Smoky coal ban extended, will ‘clear air and bring fewer deaths’>

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