Up to 3,300 Irish people die from poor air quality every year, claims expert

Up to 3,300 Irish people die from poor air quality every year, claims expert

University College Cork (UCC) emeritus chemistry professor and air quality campaigner John Sodeau.

Estimates that poor air quality causes 1,300 premature deaths in Ireland annually are likely out of date, with figures closer to more than 3,300, according to a leading chemistry expert.

University College Cork (UCC) emeritus chemistry professor and air quality campaigner John Sodeau said the early days of monitoring the new solid fuel regulations, which restrict sales of smoky fuels, including smoky coal, turf, and wet wood since October 31, were mixed at best.

While environmental stations have been using instruments to measure the amount of home fuel-related particles, there simply are not enough monitors to realistically assess the situation, Prof Sodeau said.

"Selling and burning smoky coal was regulated out of existence on Halloween this year. The obvious question to be asked now is does it work? There is a simple chemical test that can let us know. That is monitoring the amount of sulfur dioxide in the air. It is not a nice gas and turns into acid rain when it hits water droplets.

"Not many of the EPA monitoring stations house an instrument to measure it. Letterkenny does and just two evenings ago it was clear that an enormous quantity of this poison was released to the local air. In Cork, there is one instrument that measures sulfur dioxide in the air and is located at Munster Technological University (MTU). There appears to be little detected over the last week. But that is just one place," he told the Irish Examiner.

Anecdotal evidence, in this case, can be far more observant, he said.

"We all are odour detectors and the smell of sulfur compounds is pretty unique. The nose knows and you can test for yourself on a walkabout on a cold evening.

"It’s more and more important that we have good monitoring data for air pollutants here because a recent European Environmental Agency (EEA) report indicates that the number of annual premature deaths is very high — some 238,000 EU citizens died from particulate matter (PM2.5) exposure in 2020. I would hesitate to predict the number of hospital admissions there were as a result of air pollution in that year.

"Here the worst-case scenario for 2020 including premature deaths for PM2.5 plus nitrogen dioxide (NO2), plus ozone, is over 3,300 people. The days of hearing that 1,300 annual premature deaths from small particles in Ireland have gone," he claimed.

The EEA report said that while emissions of key air pollutants in the air have fallen significantly over the past two decades in Europe, it remains a major health concern for Europeans. 

Particulate matter

In 2020 in the EU, 96% of the urban population was exposed to levels of fine particulate matter above the health-based guideline level set by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Particulate matter is all solid and liquid particles suspended in air, such as dust, pollen, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets.

Nitrogen dioxide causes inflammation of the airways in high doses, which can cause irreversible damage to the respiratory system. Traffic congestion is a major contributor to nitrogen dioxide.

A major all-Ireland public health conference linking climate change with health on Wednesday heard from experts who said air pollution is linked to seven million premature deaths globally every year. The experts to 1,000 attendees that taking climate action has a two-pronged benefit of improving health and also reducing carbon emissions.

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