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Dublin: 4°C Thursday 13 May 2021

Poor air quality prematurely killing over 1,100 in Ireland each year

A smog incident last year nearly called for a public information alert.

City smoke.
City smoke.
Image: Shutterstock/Kichigin

AN ESTIMATED 1,180 people are prematurely dying each year in Ireland due to poor air quality despite the country meeting EU air quality standards, according to a new report.

The main source of the pollutants affecting the quality were vehicle emissions in urban areas and particles from burning solid fuels. 

Poor air quality has short-term health implications such as headaches, breathing difficulties and eye irritation and long-term effects including asthma, reduced liver function or cardiovascular disease. 

Particulate Matter (PM) was the pollutant most response for premature deaths in Ireland, according to the Air Quality in Ireland report 2018 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published today.  

PM is a pollutant comprised of very small particles, some of which occur naturally and others are man-made. 

The latest yearly estimates for premature deaths due to poor air quality are for 2016. An estimated 538,014 people died from the same cause across the EU that year. 

Air quality levels were below EU legal limits at monitoring sites in Ireland last year, but were above World Health Organisation (WHO) levels for several pollutants. 

pm in dublin Annual average particle pollutant concentrations in Dublin in 2015 - green areas indicate a higher amount. Source: Environmental Protection Agency

Information for the report was gathered from air quality monitoring stations from the National Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Network around the country.

Different pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide were assessed to determine the air quality.

The report suggested solutions to improving the air quality in Ireland. These included establishing clean public transport systems, creating low-emission zones and placing restrictions on solid fuel use systems.

Transport accounts for 20% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In home heating, burning waste in an open fire is the worst choice for having good air quality and health. The best choice in this area is solar, wind and heat technology.  

Moving to cleaner ways of heating homes would lead to a decrease in Particulate Matter (PM) in the air and “much improved health outcomes” for the population.

Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide were highest around the M50, certain city centre streets and the entrance/exit of the Dublin Port tunnel.

Nitrogen dioxide gets released in the air from the burning of fuel. It can irritate the nose and throat and can lead to coughing, wheezing or difficulty breathing. 

Heating homes

The report compares the towns of Longford and Bray to show the PM concentration for winter heating between 2013-2018. In Ireland, the main source of this pollutant is solid fuel burned for home heating. 

Bray has a ban on the sale and use of black coal while Longford does not. The air quality in Longford town was worse than Bray during this period despite having a much smaller population, this analysis indicated. 

longford Particle pollutant concentration for winter heating 2013-2018 in three monitoring stations. Source: Environmental Protection Agency

The report also described a ground level ozone ‘episode’ in Ireland in June 2018. Ground level ozone comes from outside Ireland, usually carried from mainland Europe. 

Ground level ozone is a harmful air pollutant and the main ingredient in smog. It can cause chest pains, coughing and can reduce lung function over time. 

In this instance, a photochemical smog episode across urban areas of Ireland led to large amounts of ground level ozone being produced.

Concentrations reached 160 µg/m3. If they had reached 180 µg/m3 it would have triggered a Public Information Alert to inform the public of the health impacts. 

The report also predicted that an air quality monitoring station at St John’s Road West in the west of Dublin city will exceed the EU limits for nitrogen dioxide in the near future. 

Dr Micheál Lehane, director of the EPA’s office of radiation, protection & environmental monitoring said that people cannot take clean air for granted. 

“Air pollution is a major environmental risk to health, so it is now time to tackle the two key issues that impact negatively on air quality in Ireland – transport emissions in large urban areas and emissions from burning of solid fuels,” said Lehane in a statement. 

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy.ie have published a proposal to investigate more deeply the issue of air pollution in Ireland. Click here if you wish to support their work.

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