Air pollution is the single biggest external threat to public health, with evidence emerging its dangers have been grossly underestimated in a global context.
A partial smoky coal ban is in place in 57 cities and towns in Ireland but it is increasingly clear this has not been sufficient.
The chief culprit is the smallest form of particulate matter – known as PM2.5 – which can impair the lungs once ingested and easily enter the bloodstream, impairing other parts of the body.
In Ireland, the single biggest sources of this pollutant are solid fuel burning in homes and city traffic. The vulnerability of people living in urban areas stands out in that regard.
With nine out of 10 people breathing polluted air, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it is leading to 7 million premature deaths worldwide every year – one-third of all deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are directly attributable to air pollution.
It can aggravate other health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma and COPD, which lead to higher risk of death from Covid-19. It increases rates of neurodegenerative diseases including dementia, while research links it to increased infertility and depression.
Does this scenario apply in Ireland?
The risk to Irish people is at least the same, if not worse, due to love of open fires, burning of peat and dependence on cars.
The evidence over the past year is striking. There have been spikes in air pollution, with cases worsening as people spend more time at home lighting their fires. In Dublin, Environamental Protection Agency (EPA)-HSE research has linked increased hospitalisations to days when air pollution surges.
In December, smog levels in parts of the capital were 15 times over the limit recommended by WHO, despite a smoky coal ban.
Other cities and towns such as Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, Tralee, Co Kerry and Ennis, Co Clare reported high levels of pollution during that month's cold spell. These are places where a smoky coal ban is also in place – while there are 61 towns where the ban does not apply.
What is the Government doing in response?
Recognising this is fast becoming a public health and not just an environmental issue, the Government is finally moving to introduce a national ban on smoky coal, but also signalling new restrictions on all smoky fuels, especially wet wood.
It is usually sold in the form of undried fuel logs – with a moisture content of at least 20 per cent – and burned in stoves and fireplaces. Also known as green or unseasoned wood, it is cheap and widely available in DIY or garden centres, where it is usually sold in sacks or nets.
The moisture is a vector for pollutants that can cause health problems. When burned, it produces more smoke than dry logs. This includes PM2.5 particles that are more harmful than bigger flakes of soot because they can penetrate deep into the respiratory system and bloodstream.
Coal and wet wood is responsible for 38 per cent of PM2.5 pollution in the UK, three times as much as road transport. In Ireland, that figure is likely to be higher due to peat burning.
A new standard is being introduced on wood, which will probably require a moisture content of less than 20 per cent – as is being introduced in England, though not yet in Northern Ireland.
Does this mean the end of open fireplaces and cool urban stoves?
Restrictions will be limited and phased in over several years but the course is clear. By 2030, there will be far less open hearths in urban houses – especially after efforts to retrofit homes for clean energy gather momentum.
Even after they come into full effect, fire lovers will still be able to collect their own fuel or buy seasoned or kiln-dried logs. Those who cut turf in rural areas will be allowed continue to do so.
What are the downsides in curbing smoky fuels?
This fuel, often coming from beech and oak trees, is more expensive but burns more efficiently and more cleanly, which means more heat, lower flue maintenance costs and fewer health concerns. And it’s easier to light.
So many people may have to pay more to heat their homes and it risks exacerbating fuel poverty – that is why it is politically contentious. Rural dwellers are already more likely to suffer fuel poverty and are more reliant on traditional fossil fuels.
Coal and peat, however, can be replaced by manufactured solid fuels that are more economical, with lower levels of sulphur and other pollutants.
It will quickly improve air quality but there are other PM sources including cars, trucks, manufacturing and construction to be addressed, especially to reduce childhood asthma and sometimes fatal heart and lung problems related to PM2.5. A ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars will not in place until 2030.
The new policy’s effectiveness will depend on closing potential loopholes. In the UK, for instance, bulk purchases are allowed as long as wood is sold with advice on how to dry it.
In the Irish context, co-ordination between the Republic and Northern Ireland will be crucial to avoid fuel smuggling. As TASC has noted, cohesion in carbon tax policy can positively benefit the environment and economies in both jurisdictions as it encourages alternative energy by making it cost-competitive with cheaper fuels.
Will this have a positive climate impact?
With people likely to switch to dry wood or manufactured smokeless fuels, climate benefits will be limited. But the extra cost of that fuel might encourage more householders to consider making their homes more energy efficient, which would reduce emissions.
Switching to lower-carbon or renewable energy, such as deploying heat pumps, would make a big difference. This requires incentives from government to make alternatives affordable and widely available.
When it comes to air pollution, targeted actions work, even if they are slower to be rolled out than needed. Dublin’s “smoky coal ban” introduced in 1990 has resulted in more than 10,500 fewer deaths, and greatly added to the health of its citizens.