Air pollution: Irish Times view on a hidden killer

Poor air quality is estimated to cause 1,300 premature deaths annually

Global air pollution, responsible for up to 10 million premature deaths annually, is the biggest environmental health threat to human populations. Half of these deaths, concentrated in the developing world, are the result of consumption and fossil-fuel burning in the world's richest countries. The latest report from the Environmental Protection Agency on air pollution in Ireland confirms it is far from being confined to far away sprawling megacities regularly blanketed in smog.

Fine particulate matter arising from burning solid fuels, such as coal, peat and wet wood, remains the biggest contributor to poor air quality in Ireland, with “worrying localised issues” in cities, towns and even villages, according to the 2021 report. It is estimated to be responsible for 1,300 premature deaths a year. Monitored levels of particulate matter, notably PM2.5, were above World Health Organisation guideline values at 38 of 67 monitoring stations. Most of these were due to pollution from burning solid fuel for home heating. Air pollution associated with urban traffic declined due to Covid-19 restrictions.

The time has come for countries including Ireland to routinely meet more demanding WHO standards

Hardening evidence that poor quality air exacerbates a wide range of conditions including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases – and undermines children’s health in particular – has finally prompted better targeting of air pollution at international level.

Health benefits from tackling air pollution are confirmed by recent European Environmental Agency analysis showing the current EU annual limit value for PM2.5 would have left premature deaths unchanged in 2019; whereas the new, more demanding 2021 WHO air quality guideline would have reduced related premature deaths by at least 58 per cent.


New Irish regulations on solid fuels coming into force in 2022 – where coal products sold will have to be “low-smoke” and wood must have a moisture content of 25 per cent or less – will help. The time has come, however, for countries including Ireland to routinely meet more demanding WHO standards.