Almost 1,000 lives a year could be saved on the island of Ireland if authorities adopt and meet World Health Organisation guidelines on air pollution, according to the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF).
A cross-Border assessment published on Thursday reveals around 2,600 premature deaths a year can be attributed to air pollution – 1,700 in the Republic and 900 in Northern Ireland.
Tiny pollutants known as particulate matter from solid fuel burning are most to blame, rather than pollution from road traffic in urban areas.
The report was commissioned by the IHF and British Heart Foundation Northern Ireland with research carried out by scientists based at Queen’s University Belfast and Technological University Dublin.
WHO recommends air quality guideline levels for particulate matter (in the form of PM2.5) of 5 micrograms per cubic metres. But the report states many people living on the island of Ireland are exposed to air pollution “well in excess” of this level, while less strict and outdated EU guidelines apply in the Republic.
Both organisations are calling on their governments to collaborate to improve air quality on the island of Ireland in light of stronger evidence of the impact of particulate matter on populations.
This report shows deaths from heart disease and strokes could be prevented by improving air quality but it requires a co-ordinated response across the island.
Some of the worst black spots with the highest pollution levels were in the Republic, with Limerick, Dublin, and Waterford cities experiencing some of the worst air quality.
It found the biggest risk to life from air pollution is heart disease, with 680 heart disease and stroke deaths in the Republic and 300 in Northern Ireland linked to the inhalation of particulate matter caused by the burning of solid fuels.
“We know that across the island of Ireland, poor air quality is continuing to have a detrimental impact on public health,” said IHF chief executive Tim Collins.
“This report estimates there could be almost 1,000 fewer premature deaths per year attributable to air pollution on the island of Ireland if we are to achieve fine particulate matter pollution levels in line with the updated 2021 WHO guideline level,” he added.
“The findings ... serve to shed some light on the size of the problem of air pollution. We hope that decision makers on the island will utilise it to move forward with bold action on air pollution to protect our health.”
At an event in the Department of the Environment, Climate, and Communications, Mr Collins called for an all-island strategy to make the WHO guidelines enforceable North and South.
“The best way to do this would be to reduce drastically the amount of solid fuel that is being burned across the island,” he underlined.
“Air pollution does not respect borders, therefore, to truly improve our air quality, governments must work together with co-ordinated policy interventions and legislation to protect our health including to completely phase out the most health-harming solid fuels, such as smokeless coal and wood, and transition to cleaner, more sustainable forms of home heating,” Mr Collins said.
He also called for assistance for households experiencing fuel poverty to help them become less reliant on solid fuels, especially solid turf, wet wood and smoky bituminous coal, to heat their homes.
Minister for Environment and Climate Eamon Ryan said: “Clean air and climate action are intrinsically linked and reducing air pollution to improve health and environmental outcomes is a core element of the Republic of Ireland’s clean air strategy. We need to end the continued concentration of dirty forms of fuel so that people no longer have to endure polluted and dangerous air quality, particularly in our cities and towns.”
Eliminating dirty fuels was required to improve health, protect the environment and lower carbon emissions, Mr Ryan said. “I fully support the introduction of WHO guidelines and standards and will continue to work on a range of actions – like reducing and restricting traffic congestion or introducing cleaner forms of fuel.”
The new figures are based on 2019 mortality data – the last year research of this type was carried out unaffected by Covid-19.