Eamonn Farrell/
air quality

'Our actions impact the air we breathe': Report highlights less traffic as key to better air

Pollutants in Ireland’s air in 2020 exceeded guidelines from the World Health Organization.

AIR POLLUTION CAUSED by traffic fell last year as fewer vehicles travelled on Ireland’s roads during Covid-19 restrictions.

However, significant pollutants were present at levels above the World Health Organization’s Air Quality Guidelines – though they stayed within EU legal limits.

In a new report, the Environmental Protection Agency identifies that Ireland has problems with poor air quality because of the burning of solid fuel and that reducing traffic volume is key to improving the quality of the air people breathe.

Air pollution from traffic in 2020 fell around the country, especially in urban areas, where the decrease was up to 50% compared to 2019.

Overall, Ireland’s air quality complied with EU legal limits, which was “largely assisted” by the reduction in traffic pollution.

However, at 52 monitoring stations, the air quality level exceeded the WHO’s guideline values, which the report attributes to the burning of solid fuel for home heating.

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy want to examine the role domestic wood burning plays in Ireland’s air pollution problems. Support this project here.

If the country returns to pre-Covid traffic patterns next year, Irish cities will exceed the EU limit on nitrogen dioxide, the EPA expects.

“Key to reducing transport pollution and improving air quality in Ireland is decreasing traffic volumes on our roads,” the report says.

“To achieve this, we must implement both a modal‐shift to cycling and walking by upgrading infrastructure and the transport options (better and cleaner public transport and increasing the use of electric vehicles) as identified in the Government’s Climate Action Plan.”

Home heating

The EPA report says that the presence of particulate matter such as smoke, dust and soot is a growing concern because of the health risks it brings.

They are at a particularly high level during the winter months, when people’s use of solid fuels such as coal, turf and wood impacts negatively on-air quality, especially in villages, towns and smaller cities.

Tiny particles can “penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood system” and exposure on a long-term basis contributes to the risk of cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, and lung cancer, the report says.

There are approximately 1,300 premature deaths in Ireland every year because of the level of particulate matter in the air, according to the European Environment Agency.

The EPA report says that moving away from the use of solid fuels to heat homes would “significantly improve air quality in our villages, towns and cities”.

Launching the report, Director of the EPA’s Office of Radiation Protection and Environmental Monitoring Dr Micheál Lehane said that air quality monitoring last year “has shown that there were dramatic and immediate decreases in air pollution in our urban areas due to reduced traffic volumes associated with Covid-19 restrictions”.

“As we now start to travel more we must not lose sight of the obvious link between our journey choices and levels of traffic-derived air pollutants,” Dr Lehane said.

“Pollutants from traffic have a negative impact on people’s health and our actions, as individuals, do impact the air we breathe.”

EPA Programme Manager Pat Byrne said that Ireland “still has issues with poor air quality” because of “the burning of solid fuel in our villages, towns and smaller cities”.

“Ireland is above WHO air quality guideline values at many locations and it is imperative that we each, as individuals, make cleaner air choices when deciding how to heat our homes, as this can improve our local air quality and have associated health benefits.”

Greenhouse gases

A separate EPA report in October identified a similar pattern in Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Emissions were lower in 2020 than in 2019 because of a large 15.7% drop in the transport sector as people travelled less during restrictions.

But overall, emissions still did not stay within EU limits and they fell less between 2019 and 2020 than they did between 2018 and 2019.

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