High air pollution levels in Irish towns suggest increased use of ‘dirty’ fuels during energy crisis

Ennis, Tralee, Ringsend, Edenderry, Longford, Macroom and Letterkenny had days with high levels of dust, soot and smoke in atmosphere

A high number of air pollution incidents were recorded in several Irish towns last year, notably Ennis, Co Clare and Tralee, Co Kerry, with new figures suggesting that householders may be increasing their use of dirty fuels during the energy crisis.

A report published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows air quality levels exceeded the recommended daily limit for particulate matter (known as PM10) on 21 days in Ennis last year and on 14 days in Tralee.

Other monitoring stations where there were a relatively high number of such daily readings included Ringsend in Dublin (11 days); Edenderry, Co Offaly (10); Longford town (nine); Macroom, Co Cork (seven) and Letterkenny, Co Donegal (six).

Particulate matter are very small particles of dust, soot and smoke which come mainly from the burning of solid fuel including coal, peat and wood for heating purposes. They and nitrogen dioxide from transport emissions are the main sources of air pollution in Ireland. PM levels are usually at their highest during winter months due to emissions from fires and stoves from increased burning of solid fuels.


According to the WHO, air pollution can increase risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases including asthma. Some 1,300 premature deaths each year in Ireland are attributable to air pollution, with most cases linked to cardiovascular disease.

The likelihood that the burning of highly polluting solid fuels would increase significantly this winter due to the energy crisis was highlighted by leading air pollution experts last September. They said this would lead to days when air quality exceeded recommended EU levels because of increased burning of coal, peat and wet wood, they predicted – despite strict new regulations including a nationwide smoky coal ban. The EU limit on PM10 levels, however, is only considered to be breached if there are more than 35 exceedances during a 12-month period.

The EPA figures show all the PM10 exceedances in Ennis last year occurred in the periods from January to March and October to December. They indicate that air quality reached the maximum 10 rating, classified as “very poor”, on nine days last year.

The highest PM10 level recorded at the Ennis monitoring station was on December 10th last, when it averaged more than three times the recommended safety limit. Latest figures show five exceedances of the 50 micrograms (µg/m³) limit were also recorded in Ennis last – the highest number of any monitoring station across Ireland.

Fine Gael councillor Johnny Flynn, a former mayor of Ennis, said the scale of the air pollution problem in the town was “shocking”. The problem was exacerbated by the geographical location of Ennis, which he said was “like in a bowl”.

“During a cold snap with very little wind you can get a concentration of fumes from solid fuel burning which tends to just hang in the air,” he said.

Mr Flynn expressed concern that there were about 1,000 homes within the vicinity of the monitoring station and noted a recent medical study which highlighted a correlation between a spike in air pollution levels and attendances at Irish hospital emergency departments.

The councillor called for the introduction of an air monitoring system capable of providing advance forecasts and warnings of poor air quality levels in Ennis.

Overall, the EPA figures show only 16 out of 58 monitoring stations, which compiled data on PM10 levels last year, did not exceed the 50µg/m³ limit on any day during 2022.

They include stations in Drogheda, Cobh, Carrick-on-Shannon, Bray, Portlaoise, Roscommon, Sligo, Killarney, Greystones, Claremorris, Carlow as well as locations in Cork and Galway.

According to the EPA, air quality in Ireland is generally good, although it claims there are concerning localised issues which can impact on air pollution levels.

The EPA pointed out Ireland had met all of its EU legal requirements in 2021 – the latest year for which complete data has been verified – but had not met new, more stringent health-based guidelines from the World Health Organisation.

The new WHO guidelines, which are not legally binding, have set a target of 15µg/m³ for annual average PM10 levels with a daily maximum level of 45µg/m³.