Smoke Factory Industry Pollution Photo: Max Pixel

New study draws a link between winter air pollution and stroke in Dublin

12 August 2020 

Higher levels of air pollution in winter is linked to increased stroke hospitalisations in Dublin, according to new research. 

A study led by the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) found that higher levels of polluting fine and coarse particles, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide increase the risk of stroke within the capital. 

The pollutants enter the air through the burning of solid fuel such as coal, peat and wood and through the existence of road traffic, particularly diesel engines. 

With the burning of nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide, the former also being a greenhouse gas, the study authors found there was a 3.5 per cent higher risk of stroke. Increased levels of coarse particles in the air saw a 3.2 per cent higher risk of stroke, and fine particles correlated with a 2.4 per cent risk increase.

The study is the first of its kind to demonstrate a clear link between short-term air pollution and stroke in Ireland. 

How air pollution increases a risk of stroke 

Nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioixide narrow blood vessels in the body, and they can trigger clots to form in arteries and cause a stroke, lead author Dr. Colm Byrne told The Green News. 

The pollutants can also trigger heart rhythm problems, like atrial fibrillation, that can also lead to a stroke. Their presence can also cause neuro-inflammation. 

Additionally, small particles that pollute the air can also cross into the blood and cause effects directly to blood vessels and the brain. 

The consequences of air pollution can be seen “very quickly”, often in a matter of hours or days, Dr. Byrne said. 

A national ban on the burning of solid fuels would therefore also generate quick results to benefit public health, he noted. 

“Every year, more than 10,000 people in Ireland have a stroke. Our research adds evidence that there needs to be a national ban on solid fuel burning to help in our efforts to reduce this number,” Dr. Bryne said upon the study’s publication. 

Climate-warming and health-damaging nitrogen dioxide emissions could also be reduced by decarbonising public transport and removing diesel engines from cities, according to Dr. Byrne. 

“Limiting car access is going to be essential to manage air pollution. It’s what’s been done in other countries, like you’ve seen in London or Paris. We’ll have to do that here as well,” Dr. Bryne added. 

Calls for nationwide smoky coal bans 

The Minister for Climate Action Eamon Ryan last month signed regulations that will extend the smoky coal ban to all towns with populations over 10,000 people with the aim of improving public health outcomes. 

The enforcement of the ban will fall to Local Authorities, who will be able carry out premise inspections, dole out the on the spot fines, and prosecute any breaches of the ban under the Air Pollution Act. 

However, calls have been growing for a nationwide ban on smoky coal which the previous Minister for Climate Action said he was unwilling to do. 

The recently formed coalition of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, according to the Programme for Government, will “move towards a full nationwide ban,” but the document did not provide detail on how it would get there. 

Environmental lawyer Dr. Andrew Jackson also noted that the government should go beyond banning just smoky coal, as EPA data suggests that smokeless fuel also generates particulate sessions.