The Irish Times view on air quality

A wake-up call for Europe

Many, but not all, of the most polluted cities are in central and eastern Europe, where coal burning, for energy and domestic use, is still much more widespread than in the west. File photograph: Getty

Many, but not all, of the most polluted cities are in central and eastern Europe, where coal burning, for energy and domestic use, is still much more widespread than in the west. File photograph: Getty

 

We face so many environmental challenges that it’s easy to forget that air pollution remains, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the “single biggest environmental health risk”. So new data from the European Environmental Agency (EEA) – which includes Turkey, Switzerland and Norway as well as EU countries, though no longer the UK – should be a wake-up call. It shows that more than half of the 323 cities monitored in 2019 and 2020 exceeded the WHO criteria for air safety.

This EEA survey is focused on long-term air quality, where exposure to pollution causes serious health impacts. It is based on the atmospheric density of fine particulate matter – microscopic particles or droplets in the air – which are invisible unless concentrations are very high.

When we inhale them, these particles cause a range of internal conditions, from irritation to severe inflammation and congestion. People with existing respiratory and heart conditions are especially vulnerable. Fine particulate matter is the air pollutant causing the greatest numbers of premature deaths and diseases. An article in the Lancet earlier this year estimated that full compliance with WHO standards could prevent more than 50,000 deaths per year in Europe.

The new EEA findings are particularly disturbing because, during much of the period monitored, the pandemic lockdowns had significantly reduced emissions of fine particulate matter from one of the main sources of this problem, the burning of fossil fuels for transport. As we return to our old ways, at least until we switch decisively to climate-friendly fuel alternatives, air pollution is therefore likely to rise again in many places.

Many, but not all, of the most polluted cities are in central and eastern Europe, where coal burning, for energy and domestic use, is still much more widespread than in the west. But it is also clear that other domestic fuels, including wood and turf, are major sources of these particles.

Agriculture is also a contributing factor, as emissions of ammonia from fertiliser and from animal manure combine with other polluting elements in the atmosphere to form particulates.

It is good to see that Ireland, so often a laggard in environmental issues, has performed relatively well in this EEA survey, at least as far as the three cities cited are concerned. Cork and Dublin make the top 40, qualifying as having “good” air condition. Waterford fares worse, nearly half-way down the table, but still with “moderate” rather than “poor” or “very poor” condition.

As the EPA 2019 air quality report shows, however, there is no room for complacency at home, with fine particulate matter still causing 1,300 premature Irish deaths yearly. Many of us still need to reconsider how we heat our homes, drive our cars or farm our land.

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