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Choking on fresh air How Ireland's air quality is leading to premature deaths

Dr Lisa McNamee outlines how air quality affects the health of people in this country and what can be done to improve it.

THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION has named air pollution as the single biggest environmental danger to human health.

It is estimated that air pollution in Ireland currently causes 1300-1700 premature deaths annually — 10 times the number of deaths on our roads. 

Ireland has not met the air quality standards for health 2022 set by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2022.

These standards cover a range of pollutants that can harm our health including fine particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and ozone (O3). Fine particulate matter comprises small particles, often byproducts of combustion or burning, that are invisible to the eye but can be inhaled.

In what way does air pollution cause harm to human health?

If air pollution levels are high it may cause symptoms like sore eyes, cough or sore throat in otherwise well people. Elderly people, those with asthma, or who have lung or heart disease should consider reducing their levels of physical activity on days when air pollution is highest.

Those with asthma may find themselves needing their reliever inhaler more often when the air pollution level is high. It has been implicated in higher levels of heart attack, and stroke, and there is emerging evidence that it can contribute to dementia and other cognitive diseases. High levels of air pollution can also lead to worse outcomes in pregnancy.

  • How exposed are children to pollution on the school run? The Noteworthy team wants to find out. Support this project here.

An Irish study completed in 2022 measured the levels of fine particulate matter air pollution at each maternity hospital site in Dublin and found that the levels were higher than the WHO’s Air Quality Guideline and may have implications for pregnant women’s health. 

DUBLIN CITY AIR Dublin City Air Quality website. Dublin City Council Dublin City Council

Air quality can vary enormously depending on the season and time of the day. On the Dublin City Council website you can check where your nearest air quality monitor is, and what its current rating level is. The air quality index ranks the current level from 1 (best) to 10 (worst) at any given time. Further data is available here for the whole country. It should be noted that there isn’t universal coverage of air quality monitors and several high traffic areas don’t have monitors in situ.

Where does the particulate matter in our air come from?

The main sources of man-made particulate matter are the burning of solid fuels and transport emissions. There has recently been a push to reduce the burning of solid fuels in Ireland. However, for a significant minority, solid fuel burning may be the only source of heat in their homes.

A large proportion of Irish housing stock is poorly insulated and prone to dampness. This presents a conundrum for policy makers. The EPA is calling for resourcing of local authorities for the enforcement of smoky coal and peat burning restrictions. However, improved supports for households looking to make the switch need to take priority. All stick and no carrot will not gain community buy-in. 

For those looking to upgrade their home’s Building Energy Rating (BER) there can be significant upfront costs that generally are borne by the household in order to avail of many grants. We need to ensure that no section of society is left behind in the transition.

Petrol and diesel engines are known to be significant contributors to air pollution, particularly in more congested urban areas. Car idling is a large source of particulate matter and other harmful substances like nitrogen dioxide and black carbon.

In 2023, University College Cork became the first university in Ireland to instate a ‘No engine idling’ policy, highlighting that two minutes of idling is harder on a car’s engine than restarting and that only two minutes of idling uses the equivalent fuel of 1.6 km of driving. UCC further recommends that drivers should turn off their engines if waiting for longer than 10 seconds, except in traffic. 

blueexhaustsmoke-carenginesmoking-smokingexhaustpipecloseup Engine idling causes big problems for the air we breathe. Shutterstock / Tricky_Shark Shutterstock / Tricky_Shark / Tricky_Shark

Improvements in active travel infrastructure and rapid expansion of the public transport network have successfully transformed cities in other European countries. Most recently, Paris moved towards an active travel focused transport policy and estimates that it will reduce air pollution by 18%, thereby avoiding 385 air quality related premature deaths per year.

A significant step was taken by the Irish government in 2023 by publishing Ireland’s first Clean Air Strategy which addresses the negative health impacts of air pollution and commits to meeting the WHO standards of clean air by 2040. It also commits the government to meeting reduction targets in 2026 and 2030.

In 2021, there was a Dublin Region Air Quality Plan published which focused on the reduction of harmful Nitrogen Dioxide levels in the Dublin area. Unfortunately, this plan has yet to be fully implemented according to the latest updates from the EPA website.

It is important that rapid progress is made in improving air quality in order to reduce Ireland’s significant level of premature deaths.

Dr Lisa McNamee is a medical doctor and the national primary care sustainability lead for Irish Doctors for the Environment.

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