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FactFind: Will planned turf regulations reduce air pollution?

Turf and other solid fuels contribute to air pollution – which can have damaging health effects.

File image of a turf fire.
File image of a turf fire.
Image: Shutterstock

THE POLITICAL TURF wars have been trundling along for weeks now, with Eamon Ryan planning to restrict the commercial sale of turf in Ireland. 

With the regulations still to be firmed up in the months ahead, the Environment Minister has repeatedly said that this measure will help to reduce premature deaths caused by air pollution. 

It has been described as a health measure – one that will improve air quality while still allowing people who have their own bogs to continue to cut and burn turf. 

Let’s take a closer look at whether this specific regulation could improve air quality and how turf contributes to air pollution in the first place. 

The claim

Environment Minister Eamon Ryan has said the main reason to ban the commercial sale of turf is for health purposes.

The European Environment Agency estimates that each year 1,300 people in Ireland die prematurely from air pollution caused mostly by the burning of solid fuels such as poor quality turf and smoky coal. 

Solid fuels like turf and coal heavily contribute to air pollution by adding fine particulate matter (PM) to the air – tiny particles that stay suspended in the air. 

So it makes sense that reducing the amount of turf being burned as fuel, in any way, will improve air quality as it will lead to a reduction in the amount of tiny polluting particles in the air. 

“People have been looking at this going back to 2015 because everyone recognises there is a problem,” Eamon Ryan told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland on 3 May. 

“The legal advice on this is absolutely clear and certain – the only way we can address the smoky fuels issue is if we do regulate the range of different fuels. Turf, wood, smoky coal.”

Previous governments had sought to ban smoky coal but there were legal threats from within the industry that this would not be permitted unless the ban also included other fuels such as peat and wood, which these planned regulations would take a step towards. 

Minister Ryan said in the Dáil on 28 April that Ireland didn’t want to bring in a full ban on using turf: “The only way we can tackle smoky fuels – the coal, wet wood, peat and other products – that are causing these deaths is to have a regulatory system, as recommended by the Attorney General, in which we tackle all the smoky fuels. 

In doing that, we recognise it is not an outright ban because there are issues and a tradition in our country where people have had access to their own bog, cutting turf and sharing with neighbours.

“Of course, we will provide for that but what we will do is start saving those 1,300 lives.”

Regulations set to take effect later this year will require wood sold in single units under 2m³ to have a moisture content of 25% or less.

Wet wood with moisture content higher than this will be required to have instructions for the purchaser on how to dry out the wood. 

Smoky coal has already been banned in all cities and towns across the country with populations of more than 10,000 people.  

A decision will be reached later this year on the turf regulations. 

A spokesperson for the Department of the Environment said the health impacts from air pollution generated by solid fuel burning “have been well established in research and are not disputed”.

“Reducing premature deaths and other negative health impacts, as well as improving quality of life for all, especially those with conditions that are exacerbated by poor air quality is the main aim of our national air quality policy.”

But while the regulations may help to cut down on air pollution, it’s clear it will not be the only measure required to reduce the estimated 1,300 premature deaths each year. 

How does turf add to air pollution? 

When a solid fuel like turf is burned, it leaves behind some unburnt particles that exit the fireplace or stove either through the chimney or directly into the room. 

This causes both indoor and outdoor particulate matter air pollution. These tiny particles remain suspended in the air and are breathed in by people.

An EPA report outlined that this can lead to health effects such as headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation, cardiovascular diseases, irritation, inflammation and infections in the respiratory system, asthma and reduced lung function.

Particulate matter is emitted by smoky fuels such as smoky coal, wet wood and peat. 

The use of solid fuels such as peat, coal and wood for home heating has been identified by EPA-funded research as the leading contributor to fine particulate matter concentrations in cities, towns and villages.

Dr Jurgita Ovadnevaite, senior lecturer at NUI Galway and leader of the aerosol mass spectrometry unit at the Centre for Climate and Air Pollution Studies, said the amount of particles emitted per unit of fuel is “very high” for turf and other solid fuels. 

“You don’t need to burn much [turf] to contribute a lot to air pollution,” she told The Journal

“Smoky fuels and especially turf and peat emit a lot of particular matter.” 

Dr Ovadnevaite and other researchers authored an EPA report on air pollution sources in Ireland last year. 

Peat and wood usage contributed to up to 70% of the particulate matter in the air in times when air pollution exceeded appropriate standards. 

“Peat was the most significant contributor to air pollution events and even overall air quality,” she said. 

“From the scientific point of view – so I’m not talking about economics, I’m not talking about fuel poverty or anything – but from the scientific health point of view and air quality point of view, there is no question [that the government should regulate turf].

She said any action limiting the amount of turf being sold “would have a positive impact” but it will be difficult to quantify the exact impact regulations on commercially produced turf will have. 

“If we banned any burning of peat, for example, then we can say that it will reduce the extreme events.

“But that would mean banning the burning completely,” she added, saying it’s more difficult for a nuanced regulation. 

But she said sophisticated air quality measurement instruments can see how much pollution comes from peat burning, so they know “restricting some fuels would have a high impact”. 

“I’ve heard some arguments that it’s natural. No, that’s not the case. It’s natural while it’s in the bog and then as soon as it starts burning, it releases that toxic matter which is not healthy,” she added. 

“Going from solid fuels [to other forms of home heating] should be really beneficial to everyone and people should understand the effects on their own health if you burn an open fire in the house -  the effect on their own health, the health of their children [and] elderly people.” 

An Environmental Protection Agency report on air quality in Ireland 2020 showed that burning very smoky solid fuel such as turf in an open fire is the worst legal way to heat your home, one step below the illegal practice of burning waste in an open fire. 

The best home heating choice for both air quality and health is through solar, wind and heat pump technology. 

The report said that PM levels in 2020 continued to be a concern in villages, towns and cities in Ireland. 

“Fine particulate matter in our air greatly impacts respiratory and cardiovascular health,” the report outlined. 

“This is particularly problematic in or near villages, towns and cities because of the cumulative effects of multiple sources of the pollutant and the large numbers of people exposed.” 

It outlined that the use of smoky coal, wet wood and peat is “especially problematic”. 

The report further emphasised that moving to more renewable energy sources and moving away from smoky fuels for home heating will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support actions under the Climate Action Plan. 

It said that burning solid fuel in stoves and particularly open fires is “an inefficient process”. 

Dr Ovadnevaite said burning turf and other solid fuels in the home can also have a negative impact on indoor air quality. 

“It’s not only the air quality outdoors like we’ve been talking about, but indoor air quality can also be affecting the health,” she said. 

“Even in remote areas using solid fuels, especially in an open fire, are seeing the effects. So it’s not only the ambient level but it does affect the levels of indoor pollution.”  

Will this specific regulation make much of an impact on air quality, and thereby reduce the amount of premature deaths?  

This is the crux of Eamon Ryan’s argument in favour of this regulation – it will save lives.  

Ryan said the burning of solid fuel like turf contributes to these 1,300 premature deaths each year. 

It will depend on how many people who use turf would be impacted by the new regulations, however. 

A recent EPA research report on residential solid fuel use in Ireland said 9.9% of households use turf as a supplementary fuel for space heating while 4% use it as a primary heating fuel. 

This report was specifically focused on the non-trade solid fuel market – seeing how many households use fuel that doesn’t originate from official commercial sources such as fuel retailers or merchants. 

This research found that turf is sourced mostly from a household’s own bog, a rented bog or from local bog owners/renters as opposed to large wholesale companies. 

Households that use low-smoke coal, other coal and peat briquettes acquire most of these fuels from a local supermarket, garage or other fuel suppliers. 

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The planned regulations, as currently reported, will not impact these people who have rights to access and harvest from their own bog. 

Other data from the 2016 census shows that overall 5.3% of households use peat to fuel their central heating.

However this varies a lot by area: it was used by over 23% of households in the Midlands, according to the Central Statistics Office.

In Offaly, almost 38% of households used peat in central heating systems. 

So it’s difficult to say how much banning the sale of commercially produced turf will reduce the actual burning of turf, considering the data shows people using turf mostly get it from their own bogs. 

Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland on 3 May, Eamon Ryan said it was always clear that this regulation is “not designed to hit those people who have turbary rights or other customary rights to their own bog and for the sharing of that peat with themselves their neighbours”. 

Peat has been used as a fuel for thousands of years, especially in northern Europe.

Ireland and Finland are among the countries who produce and use peat as fuel the most. Peat usage in Finland decreased by 13.6% between 2020 and 2021. 

So just stopping the commercial cutting of turf might not be enough to stop premature deaths from air pollution altogether, but Dr Ovadnevaite said it is still an important step in reducing the negative impacts of a highly-polluting fuel.

An alliance of public health organisations under the umbrella group the Climate and Health Alliance has advocated for a ban of turf sales.

In a statement last month, spokesperson for the alliance Dr Colm Byrne described sitting in front of a fire as being exposed to the same toxic fumes “found in traffic blackspots at rush hour”. 

Speaking on The Journal’s The Explainer podcast recently, Dr Raymond Flynn of Queen’s University Belfast said that the burning of turf was “in the same league” as other fossil fuels but that the health effects on individuals burning turf can also be dependent on air circulation in their homes.

It’s important to note that burning and extracting peat is also bad for the environment, so stopping its commercial production and sale has the added bonus of helping Ireland achieve its legally binding climate targets.

Boglands are natural carbon sinks when left undisturbed but extracting and burning peat releases carbon into the atmosphere.

So the evidence is clear that burning turf contributes significantly to air pollution and leads to premature deaths across the country.

But considering most people who burn turf from their own bogs will still be able to do so if the upcoming regulations are signed through, it remains to be seen how much of an impact the regulation of commercially sold turf will actually have on air pollution.

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