Ireland’s biggest source of air pollution is the burning of solid fuel in residential properties, and this is also the main contributor to an estimated 1,300 premature deaths a year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said.
In its air quality report for 2019, it says while air quality in Ireland is generally good and compares favourably with many of our European neighbours, “there are worrying localised issues” arising from burning solid fuel to heat buildings and traffic in large urban areas.
EPA monitoring shows in urban areas traffic-related nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution is increasing with the EU limit value for this pollutant exceeded at one Dublin traffic monitoring location – at St John’s Road West. The EPA report warns “these types of exceedances will continue unless we curb our reliance on fossil fuel powered transport, particularly diesel cars”.
“Levels of fine particulate matter (fine particles) in our air are also of growing concern, with an estimated 1,300 premature deaths in Ireland linked to this pollutant,” it adds. The main threat comes in the form of PM2.5 arising from solid fuel burning.
World Health Organisation guideline values for air quality were exceeded at 33 EPA monitoring stations, “mostly due to the levels of fine particles in our air”. Levels are particularly high during the winter months when elevated use of solid fuels such as coal, turf and wet wood impacts negatively on air quality, especially in towns and villages.
The report notes “any movement towards cleaner modes of home heating fuels will have a subsequent improvement on air quality”.
Initial studies of the impact of the coronavirus restrictions in March to May of 2020, indicate levels of NO2dropped dramatically, especially in urban areas. Levels of particulate matter did not decrease similarly, the EPA confirmed.
Dr Ciara McMahon, director of its office of radiation protection and environmental monitoring, said Ireland was renowned for its countryside and clean fresh air, “but we can no longer take this for granted”.
“Poor air quality impacts people’s health and quality of life, so it is now time to tackle the two key issues that impact negatively on air quality – transport emissions in large urban areas and emissions from burning of solid fuels in our cities, towns and villages,” she added.
“Choices we make affect the levels of pollution in the air we breathe, which in turn affects the health of our lungs, heart and other organs. We need to decarbonise our public transport system and in general reduce our reliance on diesel and petrol-powered vehicles. Moving to cleaner ways of heating our homes will also significantly improve air quality across Ireland,” Dr McMahon added.
The report backs the introduction of a national smoky coal ban and urges a review of “the feasibility of a wider smoky fuel ban for towns and cities”.
It lists solutions including more energy-efficient buildings, district heating systems, restrictions on solid fuel use, updating of old heating systems and creation of low-emission zones.
EPA air quality manager Patrick Kenny said that due to continuing negative impacts of air pollutants on people’s health and emission impacts at a local level, monitoring under the national ambient air quality monitoring programme was expanded – 24 more stations were installed in 2019 bringing the total to 84.
The EPA provides the air quality index for health and real-time results online.
The air quality report is available at www.epa.ie