Can I erect my own air-monitoring station to measure pollution in my area?
Property Clinic: Masts used for air quality assessment require planning permission
Many in fuel poverty rely on the cheap source of heat that coal provides. Photograph: Getty Images.
A few weeks back I saw a question about poor air quality caused by smoky coal. The writer wanted to know how to keep it out of her home. I live in an area of Dublin which regularly has an issue with poor air quality caused by smoky coal. Is there anyone who regulates the suppliers of so-called ‘smokeless’ fuels or who regulates air pollution in areas like ours which have this problem? We have looked at the websites of the EPA and of our local authority and they do not seem to offer anything very useful. Most of the pollution they talk about seems to arise from traffic.
We found a website, called aqicn.org, which gives data for air quality from various monitoring stations around the world, including many here in Ireland. Some of the readings appear truly shocking, especially those in the Kildare area.
This website says it is based on “citizen science” and that it operates from Beijing. It invites participants to mount a monitoring station themselves. However, it seems to me that the EPA and the local authorities here should be doing far more to monitor air quality, and should have many more monitors than they do, and well as being far more active in leading a move to ban solid fuel. I would be grateful for any suggestions.
Fergus Merriman writes: In Ireland, particulate matter from the burning of solid fuel is estimated to cause 1,300 premature deaths per year, so you are absolutely right to be concerned about the issue of pollution, which has a long and fraught history in Ireland.
The air quality in Dublin has been extremely bad in the past and in an effort to address it the government of the day passed the Air Pollution Act 1987.
However, it’s clear that this attempt to address the issue has failed, given pollution levels recently recorded in the city and several locations around the country were 15 times the World Health Organisation maximum permissible levels.
The only real solution countrywide is a total ban on smoky fuels. As nearly all our problem fuel is imported, that could be very easy to implement and very beneficial in several ways including the balance of payments and climate-change commitments.
However, the issue that needs to be addressed is that many in fuel poverty rely heavily on the relatively cheap, available and easy source of heat that coal in particular provides them with, so until we have a national strategy and rollout of alternative clean heating such as heat pumps that run on electricity, a total ban on smoky fuels is unlikely in the short term.
Despite its obvious shortcoming, the Act enables local authorities to pursue, fine or even jail polluters and requires them to take whatever measures they consider necessary to prevent or limit air pollution in their area. This includes the burning of smoky fuels or garden waste or the application of a ban on certain fuels. However, air pollution does not respect boundaries and it’s often difficult for them to be certain of the source. As a result the few cases which are taken are generally against industrial or commercial concerns which have large or easily-traced emissions. Due to the costs associated with court proceedings they are often reluctant to pursue domestic polluters.
If you want to erect your own monitoring station to measure external air quality, you will need to make a planning application to erect a mast to assess the external air mass correctly. Securing such permission may be difficult. The Environmental Protection Agency has 90 monitoring stations around the country in accordance with EU norms. You can review these and current results at: airquality.ie.
Fergus Merriman is a chartered building surveyor and member of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland