Our home heating habits and over-reliance on petrol and diesel cars are the two key areas compromising the quality of the air we breathe — nowhere more so than Longford and Ennis, Co Clare.
While Ireland met all the EU legal standards for air quality in 2016, it repeatedly breached the more stringent limits set by the WHO.
Against a backdrop of an estimated 1,510 premature deaths in Ireland in 2014 directly attributable to air quality, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is planning to more than double — from 30 to 68 — the number of air-quality monitoring stations in its network over the next five years, with each providing automated real-time data.
Cork will acquire two new monitoring stations — at Cork Harbour and UCC — to add to the existing three.
The Ambient Air Monitoring Programme (AAMP), launched today, will look at forecast modelling. It aims to provide, for the first time here, a 48-hour air-quality forecast to enable citizens make informed choices about work and leisure activities.
EPA air-quality manager Patrick Kenny said they have “had discussions with Met Éireann about carrying our forecasts” in the future and they were “looking upon it positively”.
The EPA’s Air Quality in Ireland 2016 report, published today, identifies “particulate matter” (PM2.5) from the burning of solid fuels, such as wood, coal, and peat for home heating, as the principal culprit compromising air quality. Emissions from vehicle exhausts were the second biggest threat.
During 2016, the two sites that exceeded the annual WHO guideline in terms of PM2.5 emissions were Longford and Ennis. The health impacts of particulate matter relate to its ability to penetrate deep into the respiratory tract, which can increase the risk, frequency, and severity of cardiopulmonary and respiratory disorders.
EPA director general Laura Burke said the “biggest issue impacting on air quality in Ireland” was “emissions from solid fuels in our small towns around the country”. A ban on “smoky coal” in large urban areas has been an undisputed success in improving air quality. The Department of Communications, Climate Action, and the Environment is working towards a nationwide ban for 2018.
Ennis and South Link Rd in Cork breached the WHO guideline value for sulphur dioxide concentrations in 2016, a gas formed when sulphur-containing fuels, such as coal and oil, are burned.
Impacts of high concentrations include temporary breathing difficulties for those who suffer from respiratory conditions such as asthma. A breach of the WHO guideline in relation to nitrogen dioxide was recorded at one site — Swords, Co Dublin — on one occasion in 2016. Vehicles and power stations are the main source.
Mr Kenny said after particulate matter, the pollutant of next concern was nitrogen dioxide, and that the upward trend, while “not dramatic” could become “of real concern if that trend was to continue”.
It is expected the government’s Clean Air Strategy, which AAMP will underpin, will provide policy solutions to improve air quality and mitigate climate change when it is launched in 2018.
Ms Burke said it “has become increasingly clear that there are no safe level of pollutants” and that the EPA “again” calls for “movement towards the adoption of the stricter WHO guidelines”.
The EPA is hoping for greater citizen engagement in improving air quality via a series of initiatives as part of its AAMP programme.
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