Burning solid fuel is the biggest threat to good air quality in Ireland

Date released: Nov 06 2017

  • EPA launches a National Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Programme 2017-2022 and publishes the latest report on air quality: Air Quality in Ireland 2016 – Key Indicators of Ambient Air Quality today.
  • EPA’s air quality monitoring shows burning of solid fuel is the biggest threat to good air quality in Ireland, followed by emissions from vehicle exhausts.
  • The new national programme launched today will significantly increase the availability of localised real-time air quality information to enable the public to make informed decisions and better inform national and regional policymakers.
  • Air Quality Monitoring in 2016 shows that:
    • Ireland did not exceed any legal EU limit values in 2016 for ambient air quality monitored at any of our air quality network monitoring stations.
    • Particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide levels were above the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline values at a number of monitoring stations.
    • Concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons were above European Environment Agency (EEA) reference levels.
  • Real-time air quality information for Ireland is available on the EPA website.

The EPA’s latest report on air quality, released today, shows that burning of solid fuel is the biggest threat to good air quality in Ireland, followed by emissions from vehicle exhausts. Despite monitored air quality being within EU limit values we face challenges in maintaining this position. And, at a number of locations, air quality failed to meet the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline values for a range of pollutants including fine particulate matter, which pose risks to people’s health. The levels of particulate matter in our air is of growing concern, especially during the winter months when people’s fuel choices can directly impact on our air quality and on our health, particularly in small towns and villages. The predominant source of fine particulate matter is from the burning of solid fuel. Also, in urban areas, we face potential exceedances of nitrogen dioxide limit values unless we reduce our dependence on the private motor car.

In recognition of these challenges to our air quality, the EPA today launched a new national ambient air quality monitoring programme. The programme will significantly increase the availability of localised real-time air quality information to enable the public to make informed decisions and better inform national and regional policymakers. The programme is built around three key pillars:

  • A greatly expanded national monitoring network with 38 new automatic monitoring stations, providing enhanced real-time information to the public.
  • Modelling and forecasting capability, to provide an ongoing air quality forecast to the public.
  • Encouraging greater understanding and involvement of the public in air quality issues utilising citizen engagement and citizen science initiatives.

In launching the new programme, Laura Burke, Director General of the EPA, said,

“Poor air quality is a major public health issue with approximately 1,500 premature deaths in Ireland in 2014 directly attributable to air pollution, mainly due to cardiopulmonary and respiratory health impacts from particulate matter. It has become increasingly clear that there are no safe level of pollutants and with this in mind, it is time to tackle the biggest issue impacting on air quality in Ireland – emissions from solid fuels in our small towns around the country. While the EU has introduced and implemented a range of legal instruments to improve air quality, these standards are still not in line with the tighter WHO air quality guidelines.  The EPA again calls for movement towards the adoption of these stricter guidelines, especially for particulates and ozone, as legal and enforceable standards across Europe and in Ireland.’

According to Patrick Kenny, EPA Air Quality Manager:

“Ireland met all EU legal standards for air quality in 2016 at EPA monitoring stations but values for particulate matter (with the predominant source solid fuel burning), ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide were above the WHO air quality guidelines at some of these stations. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which originate from solid fuel and “back yard” burning were also above the European Environment Agency (EEA) reference level. 

A key part of the approach to tackling these issues is better engagement with the public on the topic of air quality. The first step in this process is improved access to air quality data and information. The National Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Programme (AAMP), which is launched today, will significantly improve the availability of localised real-time air quality information to enable the public to make informed decisions and better inform national and regional policymakers.”

The National Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Programme 2017-2022 and the report Air Quality in Ireland 2016 – Key Indicators of Ambient Air Quality are available on the EPA website.

The EPA continually monitors air quality across Ireland and provides the air quality index for health and real-time results on its website. Results are updated hourly on the website, and you can log on at any time to check whether the current air quality in your locality is good, fair or poor.

Notes to Editor:

The new National Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Programme (AAMP) will involve a greatly expanded national monitoring network providing enhanced real-time information to the public, supplemented by an additional increased local authority capacity to conduct local monitoring. The network will be supported and augmented by increased modelling and forecasting capability, with the aim of providing an ongoing air quality forecast to the public. Supporting both of these elements will be citizen engagement and citizen science initiatives to encourage greater understanding and involvement of the public in air quality issues. The ambient air quality monitoring programme is built around three key pillars:

  • A greatly expanded national monitoring network with 38 new automatic monitoring stations, providing enhanced real-time information to the public.
  • Modelling and forecasting capability, to provide an ongoing air quality forecast to the public.
  • Encouraging greater understanding and involvement of the public in air quality issues utilising citizen engagement and citizen science initiatives.

This monitoring programme will underpin the proposed National Clean Air Strategy (NCAS) which is currently being developed by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.

The new national monitoring network which will be established will provide improved spatial coverage across rural and urban centres.  The siting of the stations is based on the criteria of population size, vulnerability to air quality issues and spatial distribution.  The network of sites will monitor a range of important air quality parameters including particulates, heavy metals, inorganic and organic gases.   Work to enhance and expand the network has commenced and will be completed by 2020.

There is an increasing awareness of the need for Ireland to develop its capacity and capability in ambient air quality modelling. The programme aims to provide, on a phased basis, the following modelling capability:

  • General ambient air quality modelling at urban and regional scales
  • Ambient air quality forecast modelling

Air quality related citizen engagement and citizen science will be progressed to raise awareness and understanding of air quality issues and encourage individual participation in improving air quality.

The report Air Quality in Ireland 2016 – Key Indicators of Ambient Air Quality provides an overview of ambient air quality trends in Ireland in 2016 based on monitoring data from 30 stations in operation during the year. Time series air quality concentrations are presented as a set of indicators, which compare measured concentrations with air quality standards for a range of air pollutants. The air quality analysis presented is based on concentration measurements of the following pollutants:

  • sulphur dioxide;
  • nitrogen dioxide and oxides of nitrogen;
  • carbon monoxide;
  • ozone;
  • particulate matter - PM10 and PM2.5;
  • benzene and volatile organic compounds (VOCs);
  • heavy metals - lead, arsenic, cadmium, nickel and mercury;
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH);
  • elemental carbon/organic carbon (EC/OC) as part of PM2.5 speciation; and
  • anions and cations as part of PM2.5 speciation.

The pollutants of most concern in terms of health impacts are particulate matter, PAH and, to a lesser extent, ozone and nitrogen dioxide. The sources and impact of these air pollutants, current levels in Ireland and trends over time for each pollutant are outlined in this report.

The EPA Air Quality Index for Health is a web-based index, developed in conjunction with the Health Service Executive, Met Éireann and the Department of the Communications, Climate Action and Environment that shows what the current air quality is across Ireland. The Air Quality Index for Health is a coloured scale divided into 4 bands: Good; Fair; Poor and Very poor, with health advice provided for each band.  The Twitter feed @EPAAirQuality keeps the public up to date with air quality in their region.

Under EU legislation, Ireland is required to reduce exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) by 10% between 2012 and 2020. This reduction, known as the National Exposure Reduction Target, will require an integrated approach across a number of sectors including industrial, transport and residential emissions, but will lead to many health and environmental benefits. In addition, the World Health Organisation has laid down more stringent guidelines for air quality, which may be adopted in our legislation in the future.