Imagine you’re asthmatic. You run to stay fit, but some days, it’s simply not worth it. You’ve hardly run half a mile and your lungs are collapsing. You give up, and go home.
This happens far more frequently in winter, or if your route takes you close to a busy road.
Three days later, you try again, and this time, running is comfortable. You pick a different route, away from traffic. You avoid housing estates where smoke is billowing from chimneys, even though the area you live in is, ostensibly, a smoky-coal-free zone.
Why is running so tortuous one day and enjoyable the next? The latest Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, ‘Air Quality in Ireland 2016’, provides some insight.
It shows that while we are good at staying within the EU legal limits for what constitutes good ambient air quality, we fall considerably short of the more stringent WHO guideline values designed to protect our health. And some days those shortcomings make daily activities more difficult, particularly for those who are vulnerable from a health perspective.
In 2016, we not only breached WHO values at many of the 30 sites where air quality is monitored by the EPA — we breached them for a range of pollutants, each of which negatively impacts our health, in particular cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
Among the sites where breaches occurred were Longford; Ennis, Co Clare; Valentia, Co Kerry; Mace Head in Galway; Castlebar, Co Mayo; Kilkitt, Co Monaghan; Emo Court in Laois; Bray, Co Wicklow; Swords, Co Dublin; and South Link Road, Cork City.
The report identifies the burning of solid fuels, primarily coal, wood and peat, which produces “particulate matter”, as the single biggest threat to good air quality, followed by emissions from petrol and diesel vehicles.
The report says the level of particulate matter in our air “is of growing concern, especially during the winter months when people’s fuel choices can directly impact on our air quality and on our health, particularly in small towns and villages”.
The report warns that in urban areas, “we face potential exceedances of nitrogen dioxide limit values unless we reduce our dependence on the private motor car”.
In recognition of these challenges, the EPA is today launching a new national ambient air quality monitoring programme (AAMP) which will more than double the number of monitoring sites, from 30 to 68, by 2022.
The expectation is for each site to be automated, providing real-time data.
This data will feed into air quality forecasting and modelling. Patrick Kenny, EPA air quality manager, says they are working towards providing 48-hour air quality forecasts, in much the same manner that Met Éireann provides weather forecasts. It would mean that just as weather forecasts often inform our work and leisure choices, so too would the air quality forecast.
The EPA is also hoping for greater buy-in from citizens. It aims to develop more citizen science initiatives to encourage greater understanding and involvement of the public in air quality issues.
The AAMP programme will underpin the Government’s upcoming Clean Air Strategy which the EPA is hoping will “marry the twin issues” of air quality and climate change mitigation.
However, perhaps the most importance utterance from the EPA today is to reiterate its call for Ireland to embrace the health- protecting WHO guideline values — and not just settle for meeting EU legal limits.