Severe consequences for areas not covered by smoky coal ban – expert

Air particulate pollution attacks every cell in the body – Prof John Sodeau


In 2007, Prof John Sodeau and his colleagues from UCC’s Centre for Research into Atmospheric Chemistry applied for a grant to study the effect of shipping fumes on air quality in Cork harbour. They were successful, but while undertaking the research, they found something unexpected.

While shipping fumes and emissions from cars were producing tiny specks of matter – known as particulate – there was a third, unexpected culprit. “We found there that actually one of the biggest contributors was domestic solid fuel,” he remembered.

That discovery kicked off years of research into the role of solid fuel in producing harmful particulates, culminating in the Sapphire (Source Apportionment of Particulate Matter in Urban and Rural Residential Areas of Ireland) project, which monitored air quality in small towns without a smoky coal ban. Their research was focused on Birr, Killarney and Enniscorthy.

The Co Wexford town has a particular problem with smoky coal emissions as it is ringed by hills, meaning that on still days, the pollution lingers. On one visit, he remembers “you could walk around, smell it, see it and cough on it”.

A smoky coal ban was introduced in Dublin in 1990, and now 80 per cent of the population is covered by a ban. However, Prof Sodeau warned that the public health and climate change consequences for those not covered by a ban were severe.

“It’s increasingly been found that air particulate pollution attacks every cell in the body,” he said. “The ones that come from smoky coal get down into the lung,” with smaller particulates causing even more insidious damage. Carrying heavy metals, acids and carcinogens, “they can get into the bloodstream and cause stroke and heart failure. There are even smaller ones that can get totally into the circulation and end up in the brain, and there’s good evidence that dementia is related to these,” he said.

Last week, Prof Sodeau said Enniscorthy was at risk of becoming the New Delhi of Ireland, but the problem was not confined to that one town.

Many small Irish rural towns and villages have no ban, and the particulates that enter the atmosphere there can move across the country.

“One of the main problems people don’t understand about air pollution is that it floats and moves,” he said. So-called trans-boundary events could occur between countries, so “without a doubt”, it would move between Irish towns, he said.

Legal threats

Prof Sodeau is perplexed by Richard Bruton’s decision not to enforce a planned ban on smoky coal after legal threats from some coal merchants.

“It’s a very simple thing. It’s on his desk to sign. I have no idea why he hasn’t [signed it], but I would still advise him to sign it.”

It is a first step which would also help tackle climate change. Particulates also accelerate greenhouse effects – because they are black, they absorb heat. “Air pollution is inseparable from climate change,” he said. “If you stop burning fossil fuel, you stop air pollution and reduce the climate change effects.”

Meanwhile, he believes that as the air quality monitoring network improves, new data might reveal the problem of air pollution to be even more serious, and responsible for more deaths.

Current modelling suggests that particulate matter is responsible for diseases that lead to 1,100-1,500 deaths a year. But the accuracy of those models depends on the level of air monitoring a country does. Ireland, Prof Sodeau said, had historically been bad at gathering this data, but was improving. “Once this data is put into the models, they may well show a lot more [premature deaths].”