23 November 2021
Air quality was above World Health Organisation guidelines for over 50 monitoring sites across the country in 2020, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
In its annual air quality report, the body found that while overall air quality was generally good there were some “worrying localised issues” in 2020 mostly attributable to solid fuel burning in villages, towns and smaller cities.
The fine particulate matter generated from solid fuel burning remains the “biggest contributor to poor air quality in Ireland” and is responsible for an estimated 1300 premature deaths per annum, the report concluded.
This pollutant is particularly prevalent during the current winter months as people’s home use of coal, turf and wood increases in colder temperatures.
Smoky coal is particularly bad for human health amongst solid fuels as it produces metal-based particles that can bring substantial damage to the lungs. Wood burning and peat burning also produce particulate matter when burned.
The EPA also noted that air pollution from traffic fell at all monitoring stations and specifically at urban roadside locations due to reduced traffic as a result of Covid-19 restrictions.
The health impacts of air pollution
Particulate matter has a number of health impacts, including increasing the risk of stroke.
A Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI)-led study found last year that higher levels of air pollution in winter is linked to increased stroke hospitalisation in Dublin.
Additional air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide narrow blood vessels in the body and can lead to clots forming in arteries and causing a stroke, the study’s lead author Dr. Colm Byrne told The Green News.
Their presence can also trigger heart rhythm problems, such as atrial fibrillation, which can lead to stroke and they can also cause inflammation of the brain.
Any increase in air pollutants can also be seen “very quickly” and often in a matter of hours, according to Dr. Byrne.
Equally, if solid fuel burning were to cease completely, the health outcomes of the move would be seen “immediately”, he added.
Speaking to The Green News earlier this year, Dr. Byrne also stressed that there was a social justice element in banning the practice.
Ending solid fuel burning would enable people to move away from the practice itself and highlighted that the consequences of air pollution are more prevalent in lower socio-economic groups.
This is due to the fact that people in lower-earning positions experience stress related to poverty and care, which causes inflammation in the body that is then compounded by air pollution.
In effect, it creates a “double hit”, he said.
Therefore addressing the issue of particulate matter would be a social justice action in it of itself, Dr. Byrne concluded.