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FactFind: Do more than a thousand people die per year in Ireland due to burning solid fuels?

The Farmers’ Alliance, which says it will run as a political party, mocked claims made by a Green minister during a debate on turf.

IS BURNING TURF bad for your health? Do more than a thousand people die a year due to solid fuel burning? Is it OK to burn turf briquettes, but not turf sods? And, if turf is so bad for you, why does it only seem to be affecting people nowadays?

A tweet by the Farmers’ Alliance — a group that recently announced it intends to run in elections as a political party — raised these questions on social media.

One tweet showed a more-than-year-old clip from Virgin Media’s The Tonight Show which featured Pippa Hackett, a Green Party Senator and Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

“People with chronic respiratory diseases do not have time”, Hackett says to suggestions that turf burning would die out in time anyway as new generations of people lose interest in cutting it.

“We have to get back to the point: over a thousand people a year are dying because of solid fuel burning. That is one of the most dangerous pollutants in our air.”

Hackett is then interrupted.

“And what will keep them warm?” Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae asks her.

“There are alternatives,” Hackett responds.

“No, there’s not,” Healy-Rae says.

“There are alternatives,” Hackett repeats.

“There’s not.”

“There are. If you’re on sod turf you could burn briquettes. If you’re on wet wood you could burn dry wood.”

“That’s more craziness,” Healy-Rae says. “It’s OK to burn briquettes, which are made from peat, but you’re not supposed to burn turf?”

The argument then disintegrates as Hackett, Healy-Rae and the presenter talk over each other.

The Farmers’ Alliance version of this clip says, onscreen “Green minister claims 1000s of people dying each year from turf”.

However, as can be read in the exchange, she doesn’t say that. She actually claims that more than one thousand people a year are dying because of solid fuel burning.

The Farmers’ Alliance tweet reads:

“Turf has been burned across Ireland for centuries in small houses with no ventilation, and now, all of a sudden, people are suffering chronic illnesses.

“If you open your mind and think for a second, it’s not that hard to identify these statements as pure nonsense.”

So, what is the truth to these claims?

Is smoke from turf unhealthy?

Yes. The Journal has covered this in a previous factcheck.

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 (PM) air pollution. These tiny particles remain suspended in the air and are inhaled by people.

“Illnesses impacted or exacerbated by air pollution include stroke, heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer, asthma and dementia,” the Department of the Environment said in a release on its Clear Air Strategy.

Peat and wood usage contributed to up to 70% of the particulate matter in the air in times when air pollution exceeded appropriate standards, according to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report.

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.

Is it only a problem now?

As the Farmers’ Alliance said: “Turf has been burned across Ireland for centuries in small houses with no ventilation.”

So why “now, all of a sudden” is pollution from turf affecting people’s health?

In fact, air pollution has been a serious health issue for a long while.

One EPA report notes: “In the 1980s, Ireland experienced severe air pollution episodes due to coal burning for home heating,” which later resulted in a ban on smoky coal in built-up areas.

It notes one particularly bad patch of pollution in 1982 that “resulted in the doubling of fatality rates at a central Dublin hospital”.

Turf has been burned across Ireland for centuries, but that does not imply that it is healthy any more than other centuries-old activities like smoking tobacco or drinking poitín. It is also severely undermined by the fact that life expectancy in Ireland was under 40 less than two centuries ago.

A recent study by the World Health Organisation shows that air pollution is the greatest global threat to human health, though it poses a much bigger risk in Asia than in Ireland.

Do more than one thousand people die a year due to solid fuel burning?

At least two reports have estimated that more than one thousand people die per year as a result of particulate matter (PM), the type of pollution that is released by burning solid fuels. PM can be released in other ways too, however, and the reports do not generally say whether burning solid fuels alone was responsible for the deaths; however it should be noted burning solid fuels is one of the biggest causes of PM being released. 

For example, one report by TU Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast, which was commissioned by the Irish Heart Foundation among others, found that “approximately 1,700 premature deaths (680 from cardiovascular disease) in the ROI, and 900 (with 300 from cardiovascular disease) in NI are attributable to exposure to fine particulate air pollution”.

A European Environmental Agency (EEA) report released ahead of Hackett’s appearance on the Tonight Show said that the same type of pollution was responsible for 1,300 deaths annually in Ireland

(That report was based on data from 2019. The following year’s report, which looked at 2020, when COVID restrictions came into force, showed a drastic reduction in lives lost in Ireland due to air pollution, down to about 600).

Citing the EEA figure, the EPA said: “Fine particulate matter from the burning of solid fuel remains the biggest contributor to poor air quality in Ireland, responsible for an estimated 1,300 premature deaths per year.”

University College Cork (UCC) emeritus chemistry professor John Sodeau told the Irish Examiner that the true figure for deaths caused by air pollution could be closer to 3,300.

Is it better to burn turf briquettes than turf sods?

Yes. While they are both made of peat, the smoke given off by turf, which is dried outside in the air, contains significantly more harmful substances than briquettes, which are mechanically dried and compressed.

In a study into emissions from household solid fuel appliances, both substances gave out a similar amount of heat, as well as oxides of nitrogen, which are associated with many respiratory problems. However, turf sods released more than more than double the amount of particulate matter (PM) than briquettes.

Other fuel sources, such as dry wood, performed even better and emitted about a third of both the particulate matter and the oxides of nitrogen that briquettes had.

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