Environment and Wellbeing

The overall quality of the Irish environment is generally good, but health impacts associated with air pollution in Ireland is still an issue that requires further measures. Clean air and water are essential to health, but physical activity, transportation, urban design, community participation, and nutrition also impact on health and are directly related to both the environment and wellbeing.

A 2014 report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) indicates that around 1,200 deaths in Ireland in 2012 were directly linked to air pollution, while for Europe the figure was approximately 400,000 deaths.  The most significant emissions are PM10 and PM2.5 which mainly arise from traffic emissions.  However, damage to health associated with environmental pollution in Ireland is much less than that caused by lifestyle factors such as poor diet, lack of exercise, and tobacco use.  The ongoing protection of Ireland’s high-quality environment is vital.

Current Trends

The protection of public health is a fundamental driver of environmental protection legislation and practice in Europe and Ireland. Vulnerable groups such as those on low incomes, children and the elderly may be disproportionately exposed to poor environmental conditions, giving rise to health inequalities. Sustainable management of the environment is fundamental to addressing health inequalities and achieving health for all.

Ecosystem Services and Health

The environment offers a wealth of benefits to health and wellbeing. Natural ecosystems and the biodiversity that they support not only provide essential food but also help to break down waste, purify water, cleanse the air and even serve as a source of pharmaceutical drugs, many of which have been derived from micro-organisms, fungi, plants and animals. At the start of the industrial revolution, large numbers of people moved into towns and cities, leaving rural, outdoor lifestyles behind. Since that time, the world population has increased from 1 to 7.3 billion people, with 85 per cent of Europeans now living in urban environments. Average lifespan has increased dramatically, from around 60 up to 80 years. However, the newly adopted indoor lifestyles are often associated with reduced exercise; increasing rates of obesity; diabetes and heart disease; and higher incidence of depression.

Green Spaces and Health

The natural environment can play an important role in reducing this burden of chronic disease. When people are outdoors they tend to be active, whether taking a gentle walk or a dip in the sea, gardening or participating in more vigorous activities such as surfing or long-distance running. The availability of high-quality green spaces (parks, woods, countryside) and blue spaces (ponds, river banks, lakeshores and seashores) helps to foster activity on the road to better health.

An estimated 2,000 people die prematurely due to obesity-related illness in Ireland each year. While diet clearly has a large part to play in tackling this major threat to human health, good physical planning can also play an important part. Houses and estates scattered around the country, poorly linked by public transport and dependent on private cars, militate against physical activity. Safe walking and cycling paths and accessible sports facilities have a major role to play in tackling this important public health problem. Research has shown a positive impact on mental health from exposure to the natural environment. As well as tangible improvements in wellbeing, activity in green spaces has been linked to improvements in social networking, feelings of connectivity and companionship, an increased appreciation of nature and improvements in self-esteem.

Cause

Drinking Water

The European Union (EU) Drinking Water Regulations 2014 sets quality standards for water at the tap. The most important indicator for drinking water is the microbiological content, and in particular the bacteria Escherichia coli, and Enterococci.

Significant investment in recent years has resulted in increased treatment, storage capacity and continuous online monitoring for drinking water. Since 2005, there has been a 92 per cent reduction in the number of public water supplies reporting E. coli exceedances. However, over 200,000 people are served by private group water schemes, where the microbiological quality remains inferior to public water supplies. Furthermore, little is known about the quality of the 195,000 or so private wells used in rural areas as a source of drinking water.

Wastewater

Investment in waste water infrastructure has resulted in significant improvements in the treatment of urban waste water, as 94 per cent of urban waste water at areas >500 population equivalent (PE) now receives at least secondary (biological) treatment compared to less than 30 per cent in 2001.  However, sewage discharges comprise the main municipal pollution source of water and continue to pose a threat to human health and the environment, as almost 30 per cent of all secondary treatment plants are not achieving national and EU standards.  Since 2007, local authorities, and subsequently Irish water are obliged to obtain a Waste Water Discharge Licence or Certificate of Authorisation from the EPA.

Bathing Water

There are 137 identified bathing areas in Ireland. Over the past 10 years the quality of water at these sites has remained high, with the vast majority meeting required EU standards. Various factors contribute to poor bathing water quality at the remaining locations, including inadequate sewage treatment, discharges from combined storm overflows and pump station failures. 

Under new bathing water regulations, those beaches that are classed as less than Sufficient quality i.e. Poor status, will be required to have ‘appropriate management measures’ which includes either a bathing prohibition or advice against bathing, together with a range of actions to identify and mitigate the impacts of pollution sources. Throughout the bathing season from June 1 to September 15, the latest bathing water quality information and notification of any incidents is displayed on the EPA’s Splash website.

Outdoor Air Quality

Air quality in Ireland is generally good and is among the best in Europe. However, monitoring shows that levels of some other pollutants in Ireland are at concentrations that may impact on health including nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in cities from traffic emissions.  Levels of PM10 and PM2.5, particulate matter with diameters less than 10 micrometres (μm) and 2.5 μm respectively, are also of concern due to the ability of these small particles to penetrate deep into the respiratory tract.

Indoor Air Quality

There are many sources of indoor air pollution in any building. Those pollutants of most concern from a health perspective are PM, carbon monoxide (CO), and NO2, which arise from combustion sources in homes e.g. open fires, stoves, and solid fuel boilers, as well as the naturally occurring radon gas. In Ireland, research indicates that indoor tobacco smoke poses by far the greatest health risk to the exposed population and particularly to children.

Radon 

Radon is a naturally occurring, radioactive, colourless, odourless gas derived from uranium in rocks and in soil. It poses a threat to human health because when high concentrations of the gas are inhaled, as it can cause lung cancer. While high radon concentrations can be found in any part of the country (see EPA Radon map), the EPA’s Office of Radiological Protection (ORP) has identified certain parts of the country, called High Radon Areas (HRA), as being more prone to radon. Approximately one-third of the country, mainly in the west and south east, is classified as a HRA. Radon is only a problem if it is ignored and some simple, inexpensive and straightforward solutions are available to reduce excessive levels both in the workplace and in the home.

Noise

Excessive noise can seriously harm human health and interfere with people’s daily activities at school, at work, at home and during leisure time. The EU Environmental Noise Directive (END), aims to avoid, prevent or reduce, on a prioritised basis, the harmful effects of exposure to environmental noise, mainly from transport noise sources such as road, rail, airports and in agglomerations. Industrial and waste activities licensed by the EPA have noise conditions included where appropriate, to minimise or prevent local noise nuisance.  

Chemicals and Other Elements

Environmental exposure to chemicals, both naturally occurring and manufactured can occur through a number of routes including inhalation, ingestion through food/drink and by physical contact. The health effects of exposure to hazardous chemicals range from skin irritations and chemical burns to cancer and genetic damage.

Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)

Toxic chemicals that do not degrade easily and persist in the environment for long periods are classified as POPs. They include pesticides, such as DDT; industrial chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); and unintentional by-products, for example dioxins. Dioxins arise mainly as by-products of incomplete combustion and from certain chemical processes. The 2013 EPA survey on dioxin and PCB levels in the Irish environment shows that the levels tested for all samples were well below the relevant EU limits, and compare favourably with the results from previous surveys and from other EU countries. 

Heavy Metals

Heavy metals occur naturally in the environment and low concentrations of some of these are essential to human health and wellbeing. However, elevated concentrations of many heavy metals are directly toxic to humans, animals and plants. Sources of heavy metals include materials such as paints, batteries, piping, and industrial activities including mining and coal-burning electricity generation. Ongoing monitoring of water and air indicates that heavy metal pollution does not pose a significant threat to health in Ireland.

Endocrine Disruptors and Pharmaceuticals

Endocrine disruptors are a diverse group of chemicals that affect human hormonal function and include some pesticides, PCBs, dioxins and some synthetic pharmaceuticals. Research funded by the EPA indicated that although some endocrine-disrupting compounds were detected in the Irish environment, levels are generally low and not regarded as a significant risk.  

Whats Being Done

Drinking Water

Completing the remedial action programmes, improving controls on chemical dosing, source protection and compliance with the Good Agricultural Practice regulations are all important steps that will help to improve the resilience of our water supplies.  A supply is deemed 'safe' if it meets the relevant drinking water quality standards at the tap and 'secure' if a management system, a Drinking Water Safety Plan (DWSP) is in place that identifies all potential risks and procedures to manage these risks. 

Owners of private wells should ensure that they are designed, located, installed and maintained properly. Wells should be tested regularly, particularly after a prolonged period of heavy rainfall, since this is when the well may be overwhelmed and contaminated.

Bathing Water

For the 2014 bathing season water quality will now be assessed using monitoring data for the previous 4 bathing seasons (e.g. 2011-2014) rather than focusing on the most recent bathing season. A new classification of "Excellent" has also been introduced for the highest quality waters. For the 2011 to 2014 assessment period, around  87 per cent (118) of bathing waters will meet either ‘Excellent’ or ‘Good quality, but around 5 per cent (7) do not meet the Sufficient status and were classified as "Poor" quality. This means that these waters will require specified management measures to be implemented in order to reduce the main pollution risks, and improve the water quality - see The Quality of Bathing Water in Ireland 2014 report. 

Air Quality

Overall, air quality in Ireland is expected to remain good, due largely to the prevailing clean westerly air-flow from the Atlantic and the relative absence of large cities and heavy industry. However, ambient concentrations of  NO2 are likely to remain high in Dublin and Cork due to emissions from traffic. Levels of PM are highest in towns with no ban on bituminous coal and at traffic influenced sites in cities.

Efforts are required to address both these sources, including extending the ban on bituminous coal to other areas of the country and reducing traffic emissions in cities. The Clean Air for Europe (CAFE) Directive will require Ireland to reduce its average PM2.5 levels by 10 per cent by the year 2020.  This will require an integrated approach across many sectors in Ireland, including the transport, residential and industrial sectors.

Outlook

One of the key future challenges for Ireland is to develop and protect our natural ecosystems and the biodiversity that they support, as these help to break down waste, purify water, cleanse the air and even serve as a source of pharmaceutical drugs.  The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is intended to be the leading intergovernmental body for assessing the state of the planet's biodiversity, its ecosystems and the essential services they provide to society. The overall objective of IPBES is to provide policy relevant knowledge on biodiversity and ecosystem services to inform decision making by member states such as Ireland.

Environmental Action Programme (EAP)

One of the key aims of the 7th EAP for Europe, is to safeguard the Union's citizens from environment-related pressures and risks to health and wellbeing.  The actions that are being taken in relation to outdoor and indoor air quality, as well as for noise pollution are moving member states including Ireland closer to the WHO recommended guidelines. 

The combination effects of chemicals and safety concerns related to endocrine disruptors are being addressed in all relevant Union legislation, and risks for the environment and health, in particular in relation to children, associated with the use of hazardous substances, including chemicals in products, are being assessed and minimised. 

However, long-term actions with a view to reaching the objective of a non-toxic environment will need to be identified and then implemented.  The use of plant protection products does not have any harmful effects on human health or unacceptable influence on the environment, and such products are used sustainably.  This is an area that Ireland will need to target going forward through further research and development.

Health and Wellbeing

The Health and Wellbeing Division of the Health Service Executive (HSE) is focused on helping people to stay healthy and well, reducing health inequalities and protecting people from threats to their health and wellbeing. The services within HSE Health and Wellbeing support people and communities to protect and improve their health and wellbeing; turning research, evidence and knowledge into action; acting as the authority on health, wellbeing and policy development; building an intelligent health system and a healthier population.