Firelighters ‘hidden culprit’ behind black carbon air pollution, study finds

Previously unknown health and climate effects from firelighters exposed by researchers from Ireland, China and India

The study found firelighters emit more black carbon than all biomass fuels put together. Photograph: iStock

Domestic firelighters are a “hidden culprit” behind air pollution and emit more black carbon than all biomass fuels combined, a new study has found.

Researchers from Ireland, China and India, led out of University of Galway, have exposed previously unknown health and climate effects from the use of domestic firelighters.

The study found firelighters, even if used in small quantities and for a short period of time, emit more black carbon, a major contributor to global climate change, than all biomass fuels put together.

The research was published in the scientific journal npj Climate and Atmospheric Science – Nature, and is part of the pilot Aerosource initiative, funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications.


The analysis of air quality took place in south Dublin in 2016 and subsequent years, and included data recorded by the monitoring stations controlled by the EPA.

The researchers found that in 2016, average black carbon levels in Dublin rivalled those in Beijing. More recent data, from last winter, showed Beijing has since had a higher concentration of the pollutant.

Poor air quality having a detrimental impact on health and deaths in Ireland, report findsOpens in new window ]

Black carbon, which is emitted by firelighters, and organic aerosol, which is produced by solid biomass burning, combine to result in a more powerful climate warming effect.

Despite generally good air quality in Ireland due to Atlantic weather patterns, the Aerosource research revealed that extreme air pollution events, spanning most populated areas across the country, occur frequently in wintertime and during these times concentrations of air pollutants exceed levels recommended for health.

Prof Jurgita Ovadnevaite, co-ordinating scientist of the international research project, said black carbon is one of the main pollutants that affect air quality which acts “as a climate forcer or driver, second only to carbon dioxide”.

“It has a toxic effect on the respiratory system, even if they’re tiny. Black carbon are usually very tiny particles that can go deep in the blood and the cardiovascular system,” she said.

Prof Ovadnevaite said black carbon also has an impact on the dispersal of air pollution, which amplifies the concentration of other pollutants that are concurrently emitted.

“Unfortunately, there is no silver lining in this cloud over human health and climate change until the promotion of solid biomass fires and the use of firelighters for ignition is replaced by a co-benefit policy.”

Prof Colin O’Dowd, director of the Ryan Institute Centre for Climate and Air Pollution Studies at University of Galway, said compounds consisting of carbon are known to be diverse, meaning it can be complex to determine their contribution to air pollution and in determining their sources.

“Without this, effective pollution control and climate change mitigation strategies cannot be developed,” he added.

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is Health Correspondent of The Irish Times