Fine particulate matter arising from burning solid fuels remains the biggest contributor to poor air quality in Ireland, with "worrying localised issues" in cities, towns and villages, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Monitored levels of particulate matter were above World Health Organisation (WHO) air-quality guideline values – either annual or daily – at 38 of 67 monitoring stations last year, mainly as a result of pollution from the burning of solid fuel for home heating, according to the 2020 Air Quality in Ireland report from the agency.
While air quality was generally good, the main threat to public health is from tiny particles known as PM2.5 and PM10, the report concludes.
It reiterates that air pollution is responsible for an estimated 1,300 premature deaths in the State per year.
In a similar pattern to carbon emissions, air pollution from traffic fell at all monitoring stations last year, particularly at urban roadside locations, as a consequence of reduced traffic volumes due to Covid-19 restrictions, the report issued on Tuesday confirms.
Ireland compares favourably with many of its European neighbours, the report finds. However, Ireland was above WHO air-quality guidelines for particulate matter (PM), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and ozone at 52 monitoring sites, mostly due to the burning of solid fuel. The WHO standards are more demanding than EU limits though air pollution is the single biggest environmental health risk in Europe.
Burning coal, peat and wood in stoves, especially in open fires, is an inefficient process – a lot of heat is lost and not all the fuel is fully burned. Unburnt particles leave the fireplace or stove by the chimney or go directly into the room they are heating. This causes both indoor and outdoor PM air pollution.
It “greatly impacts respiratory and cardiovascular health. This is particularly problematic in or near villages, towns and cities because of the cumulative effects of multiple sources of the pollutant and the large numbers of people exposed,” the EPA points out.
“The choices we make in how we heat our homes and how we travel directly impact the quality of the air we breathe,” the report adds.
Ireland was compliant with EU legal limits in 2020, largely assisted by the significant reduction in traffic due to Covid-19 restrictions. Air pollution from traffic – nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – fell at all monitoring stations, but most notably at urban-traffic locations where levels fell by up to 50 per cent.
Levels of particulate matter, however, are of growing concern and are particularly high during the winter months when solid fuel use increases, the EPA warns. Any movement towards cleaner home-heating choices and less smoky solid fuel choices will result in a subsequent improvement on air quality, it adds.
Dr Micheál Lehane, director of the EPA’s office of radiation protection and environmental monitoring, said there were “dramatic and immediate decreases in air pollution in our urban areas due to reduced traffic volumes associated with Covid-19”.
He added: “As we now start to travel more, we must not lose sight of the obvious link between our journey choices and levels of traffic-derived air pollutants. Pollutants from traffic have a negative impact on people’s health and our actions, as individuals, do impact the air we breathe.”
With exceedances of WHO air-quality guideline values at many locations, EPA programme manager Pat Byrne said "it is imperative that we each, as individuals, make cleaner air choices when deciding how to heat our homes, as this can improve our local air quality and have associated health benefits".
The Government has announced new regulations on the use of solid fuels will come into force in 2022 – all coal products sold will be required to be low-smoke and all wood sold for immediate use must have a moisture content of 25 per cent or less.
“This is a positive step for air quality, which will need to be supported by clear communications to ensure public engagement and the best outcome for air quality and health,” the report says.
Outdoor air pollution causes an estimated 4.2 million deaths per year worldwide due to stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases. In children and adults, both short- and long-term exposure can lead to reduced lung function, respiratory infections and aggravated asthma.