Ireland’s air quality currently is good, relative to other European Union (EU) Member States, however local issues do exist. Maintaining this standard is a growing challenge. Despite our monitored air quality generally being within EU limit values, the levels of particulate matter is of growing concern, especially during the winter months when domestic solid fuel burning can directly impact on air quality and on our health. In our larger urban areas we face potential additional exceedances of the EU limit values for nitrogen dioxide, similar to the exceedance at St. John’s Road West in 2019, unless we reduce our dependence on the private motor car.
The European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates show that more than 400,000 premature deaths are attributable to poor air quality in Europe annually. In Ireland, the number of premature deaths attributable to air pollution is estimated at 1,300 people. The WHO has described air pollution as the ‘single biggest environmental health risk’.
The ambient air quality pollutants of most concern on an EU-wide level are nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter (PM), ozone and PAHs. They can impact on human health, ecosystems and vegetation and monitoring is carried out to determine their concentration levels.
Nitrogen Oxides (NOx)
NOx is the collective term for the gases nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Emissions from traffic are the main source of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in Ireland, along with electricity generating stations and industry. Short-term exposure to NO2 gas is associated with adverse respiratory effects, while NOx in general contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone and acid rain.
The NO2 concentrations in Ireland were static for the period 2008‑2015, perhaps because of a combination of the economic downturn and favourable weather conditions. However, the economic recovery has seen an increase in NO2 levels in urban areas, resulting in an exceedance of the NO2 annual limit value at one Dublin station in 2019. It will be important to remain vigilant to increasing NO2 levels, particularly from transport in urban centres.
Particulate Matter (PM10 and PM2.5)
There are many sources of particulate matter (fine particles) including domestic solid fuel burning, diesel fuelled vehicle emissions, agriculture and even natural sources such as sea salt and wind-blown dust. These small particles can penetrate the lungs and cause health effects. There are two main types - PM10 (diameter less than 10µm) and PM2.5 (diameter less than 2.5µm).
PM2.5 tends to be a better signifier of man-made pollution, whereas PM10 can have a greater contribution from natural sources. In Ireland, levels for both PM10 and PM2.5 are above the WHO air quality guidelines values. Bringing the PM levels down below the WHO guideline values will be a challenge, requiring co-operation across a number of sectors.
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)
PAHs are organic compounds predominantly originating from solid fuel burning, particularly wood burning and, to a lesser extent, vehicle emissions. A reduction in the use of solid fuel as a home-heating source across Ireland would mitigate PAH impact on air quality into the future.
Ground Level Ozone (O3)
At ground level, higher concentrations of ozone in the air have adverse implications for human health, for crops and other vegetation. With respect to human health, high concentrations of ozone affect the functioning of the respiratory system. Levels in Ireland are highly influenced by transboundary sources but are low in comparison with those in mainland Europe.
In Irish urban areas, ozone is depleted through reactions with traffic-emitted pollutants; therefore levels of ozone are higher in rural areas than in urban areas. Average concentrations in Ireland are generally below the thresholds for effects on human health and vegetation set down in the Clean Air for Europe (CAFE) Directive, but can exceed the WHO air quality guideline values for ozone.
Dioxins and PCBs
"Dioxins” is a collective term for over 200 chemical compounds, of which 17 are considered to be of toxicological significance. These compounds arise mainly as unintentional by-products of incomplete or poorly controlled combustion (e.g. backyard burning of waste) and from certain chemical processes. To maintain surveillance of dioxins, the EPA conducts surveys based on levels found in cows’ milk. All dioxin levels recorded in these surveys have been well below legislative limits and compare favourably with those from previous surveys and from other EU countries.
In Ireland the premature deaths attributable to air pollution are estimated at 1,300 people. The most significant air emissions are PM10 and PM2.5 which mainly arise from domestic solid fuel burning. Poor air quality leads to impacts on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. The economic impact is also significant, with the increased costs of healthcare and lost working days.
Comparison of national ambient air monitoring results with WHO guideline values for particulates and PAHs shows the need for progress with regard to reducing levels of emissions attributable to residential heating. The burning of solid fuel is a source of particulate matter (PM) and other air pollutants including SO2 and PAHs. PM and PAHs arise from domestic solid fuel burning, which particularly impacts air quality in areas where the sale of bituminous coal is permitted.
New EU emissions standards for vehicles, cleaner technology, and a reduction in the number of vehicles using the roads as a result of the economic downturn led to a decrease in NO2 in our urban centres during the recent recession. However, economic recovery has led to an increase in transport related NO2 levels. In 2019 there was an exceedance of the nitrogen dioxide annual limit value at St. John’s Road West. Further exceedances of the limit value in urban areas are likely unless remediation actions are put in place.
Air pollution has a transboundary aspect meaning that emissions from one country can be transported via meteorological conditions to other countries. National emissions ceilings are in place across Europe to control emissions of four key transboundary pollutants: sulphur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and ammonia (NH3). These pollutants can contribute to acidification, eutrophication and ground-level ozone formation, but they have shown declining concentrations since the introduction of recent legislation.
Air Quality Data
Limit values have been established by the European Union based on contributions by environmental and health experts in order to help mitigate the impact on Member State populations. Upon exceedance of these limit values, Member States must implement air quality plans to assess and combat the problem.
The WHO has devised air quality guidelines in order to inform policymakers and provide appropriate air quality targets worldwide, based on the latest health information available. Since 2012, the EPA’s annual reports have been assessing air quality against these much more stringent air quality indicators. There have been exceedances of the guideline values for particulate matter, ozone and PAHs and the EPA has called for the adoption of these more stringent WHO guidelines in Europe for particulate matter and ozone.
What's Being Done?
European Union (EU) Legislation
Limit values have been established by the EU to help mitigate the impact on Member State populations. Upon exceedance of these limit values, Member States must implement air quality plans to assess and combat the problem. A national monitoring network supplies an ever increasing level of real-time data on air quality to the Irish public.
The EPA co-ordinates and manages a nationwide network of 90 monitoring stations which measures the levels of air pollutants and delivers this information to the public. The EPA is currently rolling out a National Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Programme, which involves a greatly expanded national monitoring network providing enhanced real-time information to the public, as well as an increased local authority capacity to conduct indicative air monitoring. There are also various citizen science initiatives to encourage greater engagement of the public in air quality issues including Globe programme and Cleanair@schools. The expanded network and citizen science projects ensure enhanced availability of accessible real-time air quality information to the public and can inform national policy development.
Air Quality Index for Health
The EPA’s Air Quality Index for Health (AQIH) is a number from one to 10 that tells the public what the air quality currently is in their localised area, and whether or not this might affect the health of you or your child. A reading of 10 means the air quality is very poor and a reading of one to three inclusive means that the air quality is good. The AQIH is calculated every hour, and you can see the current readings at www.airquality.ie. The AQIH can be used by health professionals to help patients who are sensitive to air pollution manage their condition and reduce their symptoms.
Comparison of national ambient air monitoring results with WHO guideline values for particulates and PAHs shows the need for progress with regard to reducing levels of emissions attributable to residential heating. The ban on the marketing, sale and distribution of bituminous fuel (the “smoky coal ban”), which was first introduced in Dublin in 1990 has been extended over the intervening period and now applies to all cities and towns with populations in excess of 10,000.
Continued use of peat and wood in Ireland will contribute to air pollution in residential areas. EPA funded research currently being undertaken aims to deliver detailed information on the chemical composition and sources of airborne particulate matter in rural and urban residential areas of Ireland so as to assist appropriate health focused policy interventions.
Resulting from the exceedance of the EU limit for nitrogen dioxide in Dublin, the Local Authorities in Dublin and its suburbs, are now legally required to prepare an air quality action plan to address the exceedance. This action plan must be produced by the end of 2021. The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications (DECC) together with the Department of Transport (DOT) have established a joint working group on Urban Transport Related Air Pollution (UTRAP) to address this issue and a report on this groups recommendations is currently being prepared.
Emissions from Industry
Industrial Emissions (IE) and Integrated Pollution Control (IPC) licensing, enforced by the EPA, help to curb emissions from industry and the power generation sectors in Ireland. The introduction of the Medium Combustion Plant Directive has also had a positive impact on emissions from industry.
EPA Research Programme
Under the 2014-2020 EPA Research Programme, the EPA funds research in Air quality under its Climate Pillar Theme 4: Air Science (Air Pollution and Short-lived Climate Forcers). The objective of research in this area is to inform pathways for Ireland to achieve the highest air quality standards. Research topics include increasing understanding of emissions to the atmosphere, pollutant transport, atmospheric reactions and deposition impacts for human health and ecosystems. Research on emissions and activities that give rise to emissions informs the development of the national pollution inventory provided to the UNECE CLRTAP annually, as well as being used to determine progress on targets established under the National Emission Ceiling Directive (2016/2284/EU; https://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/air/national-emission-ceilings). This includes key air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides, ammonia and particulate matter.
More broadly, research in this area supports air quality modelling capacity, integrated assessment modelling and ecosystems studies. These inform and enable engagement with the UNECE CLRTAP and its associated programmes, including on impacts of air pollutants and critical loads. This research also informs engagement with EU working groups under the Clean Air For Europe (CAFE) programme. Data from research feed into pan-European analysis of the effectiveness of protocols and associated polices. European Monitoring and Evaluation Programme (EMEP) sites in Ireland, including Mace Head, provide data and analysis that are key to studies of the hemispheric transport of air pollution, which are considered under the CLRTAP Task Force on Hemispheric Transport of Air Pollution (HTAP). These pollutants also influence climate systems and Ireland is a member of the international Climate and Clean Air Coalition, which aims to promote synergies between policy actions on climate and air quality in realising co-benefits for climate, health, environment and society. Research in this area also supports fundamental research on issues such as interactions between pollutants and solar radiation and the impacts of pollutants on cloud formation and characteristics. These pollutants can mask global warming but remain challenging and a key source of scientific uncertainty in the determination of the global energy balance.
Details of the latest EPA Funding Research Opportunities and Awards are available from here.
Since 2014, in this area:
• 33 projects have been funded (total commitment of c. €4.6m) (as of November 2020). For more details regarding the EPA-funded projects, please go to our Public Searchable Projects Database.
All published air quality related EPA Research Reports are available on the research pages of www.epa.ie.
A key future challenge for Ireland is in decreasing our particulate matter, PAHs and ground level ozone concentration levels below the more stringent World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality guideline values.
Tackling transport sector pollutants will require a combination of secured national investment, advancements in technology, policy developments and, a shift in behaviour by us as individuals. Emphasis and priority should be given to public transport or clean transport over conventional internal combustion vehicles in all aspects of society. However, it is also the individual choices that people make that will have the most immediate and greatest impact on transport emissions in our urban areas where NO2 is problematic and where public transport is a viable option.
Domestic Fuel Burning
Continuing emissions from domestic solid fuel use are contributing to high levels of particulate matter and PAHs in villages, towns and cities. The ban on smoky coal in cities and towns with populations in excess of 10,000 will have an impact on levels of particulate matter. However, there is a need for regulation of solid fuel beyond coal.
Peat burning is still prevalent in many parts of the country – most particularly in rural areas – and contributes significantly in terms of particulates. Green/ wet wood and peat burning is emerging as a potentially significant contributor to PAH and particulate matter levels in Ireland, along with a wide variety of other solid fuel products that are on the market.
Essential to the goal of improving our air quality will be a shift for Irish consumers from solid fuel to cleaner fuel alternatives, along with an awareness of the impact our choice of fuel for home heating has on air quality. Incentives for people to use alternatives should continue to be encouraged at a national level.
Pathway to Good Air Quality
The implementation of the revised National Emissions Ceiling (NEC) Directive across Europe, as part of the EU Clean Air Policy Package, has been having a positive impact on pollutant levels. A rise in ammonia through agricultural expansion could lead to an increase in the secondary formation of particulate matter. Measures such as anaerobic digestion of animal wastes with associated energy recovery and low-emission land spreading practices can have multiple benefits for air quality, water quality and climate change.
Many of the sources of air pollutants are also the sources of greenhouse gases, so an increased understanding and policy alignment of air quality and climate change is essential. More research is needed into the links between air quality and public health to add to ongoing EPA Research Programme funded research in this area including the Inhale and Impact of NO2 on Health projects and valuable work carried out by other researchers. This understanding will help to identify the critical issues and help policymakers implement the necessary changes to improve our air quality and associated public health.
The European Commission (EC) communication COM(2019) 640 – The European Green Deal (EGD), sets out the EU’s ambition in relation to air quality and highlights the zero-pollution ambition for a toxic-free environment. The EC propose to strengthen provisions on monitoring, modelling and air quality plans (AQPs) to help local authorities achieve cleaner air.