Our air quality breaches world health guidelines at a third of test locations tested here
Air quality has breached health guidelines at more than a third of locations monitored around the country, as traffic fumes, open fires and solid fuel stoves continue to cause pollution.
World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines were breached at 33 of 84 air monitoring stations which showed high levels of particulate matter (PM), the microscopic particles of soot, dust and other material produced mainly by burning solid fuels.
PM can cause a wide range of health issues including heart problems, stroke, respiratory illnesses, asthma and cancer.
An estimated 1,300 people die prematurely because of air pollution in Ireland each year, an increase on the previous estimate of 1,180.
None of the breaches of WHO guidelines were severe enough to break the less strict legal thresholds set down by the EU, but there was a breach of the legal limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a gas emitted from vehicle exhausts.
The problem was detected at one of Dublin’s busiest commuter routes, St John’s Road West near Heuston Station, where an average reading of 43 micrograms of NO2 per cubic metre of air was recorded for the year, in excess of the 40 microgram limit.
EU sanctions will follow if a management plan being put in place for the area does not improve the air quality.
Four other monitoring stations showed high levels of PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), a toxic and potentially cancer-causing chemical compound produced from burning solid fuels. There were no legal breaches but the levels exceeded European Environment Agency recommendations.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which produced the report for 2019, said Ireland’s overall air quality was good and compared favourably with EU neighbours, but “worrying localised issues” needed to be addressed.
Implementing the Climate Action Plan by switching to cleaner methods of transport and home heating were essential, the agency said.
Dr Ciara McMahon, director of environmental monitoring at the EPA, said: “Ireland is 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 in Ireland – transport emissions in large urban areas and emissions from burning of solid fuels in our cities, towns and villages.
“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.”
The point about cleaner transport was vividly illustrated between March and May this year when NO2 levels fell dramatically as Covid-19 restrictions kept motorists off the roads. The levels rose as restrictions were eased.
There was little difference in the levels of PM, illustrating the need to reduce dependence on coal, peat and wood in stoves and open fires.
From the beginning of this month, the sale or burning of smoky coal has been banned in all towns with populations greater than 10,000. The Programme for Government also commits to publishing a long-awaited national clean air strategy to deal with lingering pollution problems.
The EPA recommends in its report that the smoky coal ban be extended to all smoky fuels, including turf and wood, along with financial supports to help people convert their heating systems.
“Together with enhanced enforcement this could have a dramatic effect on air quality in these areas,” it says.