Key pressures on air quality
The biggest health risk in relation to air quality is fine particulate matter - PM2.5. One of the biggest sources of national emissions of PM2.5 is from burning of solids fuels for home heating, mainly coal and peat and to a lesser extent wood. The total estimated national emissions of PM2.5 in 2018 was 12.04 kilotonnes, of which 6.32 kilotonnes (i.e. more than 52%) was due to domestic burning of coal, peat and wood. Based on 2018 data, the use of coal, peat and wood for home heating account for only about 15% of home heating energy input, with the largest sources of heating energy being from oil (38%), electricity (25%) and gas (21%). Despite the relatively low contribution to home heating from coal, peat and wood, they account for 99% of direct PM2.5 emissions from home heating and to more than 52% of total national PM2.5 emissions (coal ~ 21.5%, peat ~ 27.2%, wood ~ 3.8%).
Other significant sources of PM2.5 emissions include transport (~ 14%), commercial combustion activities (~ 3%), agriculture (~ 7%) and electricity and heat production (~2%).
The other key pollutant from a health viewpoint is nitrogen oxides (NOx). Transport accounts for more than 40% of national emissions (in 2018), with other important sources including agriculture (~ 32%), manufacturing industries and construction (~ 9%) and public electricity and heat production (~ 6%).
Pressures on clean drinking water and health
Safe drinking water is essential to public health, and therefore water must not contain microorganisms and substances at concentrations that could endanger health. Drinking water supplies are therefore required to meet specific legislative standards, the objective of which is to protect human health. The results of the 2020 drinking water monitoring programme for public water supplies show 99.96% compliance with microbiological standards and 99.71% compliance with chemical standards in public drinking water supplies. While this indicates that the majority of public water supplies are safe, further improvements are necessary to improve the security of supplies and avoid long-term (> 30 days) Boil Water Notices.
There were 46 supplies on the Remedial Action List (RAL) at the end of 2020, a reduction from 52 supplies at the end of 2019. The population affected has also decreased from 1,128,847 at the end of 2019 to 1,004,997 at the end of 2020.
The population affected by Boil Water Notices (BWNs) in 2020 was 74,955, a significant decrease from 2019, where 695,364 people were impacted. The high figure in 2019 can mostly be attributed to the Leixlip Water Treatment Plant, which serves over 600,000 people, being placed on two (short-term) boil water notices in 2019. The number of BWNs issued in 2020 also decreased (43 in 2020; 67 in 2019). Of those BWNs in place during 2020, 27 were in place for more than 30 days, with 18 in place for more than one year. Preventative maintenance is critically important to ensure that infrastructural issues can be identified and addressed at the earliest possible opportunity to prevent Boil Water Notices becoming necessary to ensure protection of public health.
Lead in drinking water continues to be a health concern. Lead is found in drinking water when it dissolves from lead pipework, mains connections, and plumbing fittings. Lead is very harmful to the development of the nervous system and can cause long-term health damage, however, there continues to be a lack of urgency in addressing the removal of lead from our networks and buildings. Just over 3,000 individual lead connections were replaced by Irish Water in 2020, compared to 15,000 in 2019. This brings the total number of connections replaced to 34,500, or just under one-fifth of the total to be replaced by Irish Water. If Irish Water continue to replace lead connections at the 2020 rate, it will take half a century to address the risks posed to public health from lead in drinking water. Building owners should also assess their properties and remove any private side lead to protect people in their homes and workplaces.
As well as public water supplies, a significant fraction of the population (~ 20%) obtain water from private water supplies including group schemes, small private supplies and individual wells. Larger private supplies are required to monitor the quality of the water being supplied, with available data indicating that the quality of water from private supplies is not as good as that from public supplies. In addition, around 16% of registered water supplies were not monitored at all in 2018.
Household wells and group schemes serving <50 people or providing < 10,000 litres per day which are not supplying any public/commercial activity, are not covered by the drinking water regulations and therefore are not required to be monitored. In these cases it is the responsibility of the householder themselves to ensure that the water is fit for purpose. Because of this there is very little information on the quality of the water in these supplies, but it is estimated that between 15% and 30% of all wells are contaminated by E.coli and that around two-thirds of wells could be at risk of contamination.
There are an estimated 500,000 domestic waste water treatment systems (DWWTS), i.e. septic tanks and treatment systems, in Ireland treating waste water from houses not connected to a public sewer system. Household septic tanks can threaten both public health (e.g. drinking water) and water quality (rivers, lakes, groundwater quality) if they are poorly constructed or fail to operate satisfactorily.
There is also a particularly dangerous form of E. coli called VTEC (Verocytotoxigenic E. coli). This can arise from contamination of a water supply by cattle slurry. Ireland has the highest incidence of VTEC infection in Europe, with 10 times the European average in 2017. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) has reported an increasing number of cases of VTEC infection in Ireland, with 1,122 cases in 2018 compared to 283 in 2011. Research has demonstrated that incidence of VTEC infection in Ireland is particularly associated with rural areas, with significant associations between cattle density as well as unregulated household wells.
The increased frequency of extreme weather events can also cause problems in both public and private water supplies. Flooding can present particular risks, with contaminants being washed into water supply systems, while drought conditions also present a concern. It is important that water supplies are enhanced to increase resilience to these events.
Learn more in the Focus on Private Water Supplies 2019 report
Pressures on the quality of our rivers, lakes and soils
The latest EPA water quality in Ireland report indicates that there are significant challenges in improving the quality of our surface waters (i.e. coastal waters, rivers, lakes and estuaries) as assessed under the Water Framework Directive. This impacts on the broader ecosystems and affects the ability of our environment to support a healthy population.
The report finds that 52.8% of surface water bodies assessed are in satisfactory ecological health, being categorised as either in good or high ecological status. The remaining 47.2% of surface water bodies are in moderate, poor, or bad ecological status. This compares with 55.4% at satisfactory status for the last assessment period of 2010 – 2015, a decrease of 2.6%. Nearly all the negative trends are driven by changes in river water quality. The substantial increase in the number of river water bodies in poor status, which has increased by a third (or 110 water bodies) since 2007-2009 is evidence that river water quality is getting worse.
The main pressures impacting water quality in Ireland include agriculture, waste water discharges, impacts to the physical habitat conditions including excess fine sediment (hydromorphology), and pressures from forestry activities. Pollution from agriculture and waste water are a particular issue, resulting in nutrient pollution which causes excessive plant growth and algal blooms, while pollution from herbicides and pesticide use is also impacting on water quality in some areas. The ongoing deterioration of our water bodies is a worrying trend and is an area where urgent and consolidated action is required.
In addition to the ecological status of our water bodies, the Water Framework Directive also requires assessment of their chemical status. Only 25% of our surface waters failed to achieve good chemical status, with failures being related to a small number of persistent chemicals. The limits for these chemicals are specified in order to protect the most sensitive aquatic organisms and also those higher up the food chain (including humans). The chemicals identified as being of concern include mercury, heptachlor and heptachlor epoxide (insecticides), poly brominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) (flame retardants used in many manufactured goods) and benzo(a)pyrene, which is a polyaromatic hydrocarbon (PAH).
The management of sludges from waste water treatment plants is also an area which could present a risk to the quality of agricultural soils, with 99% of municipal waste water sludges being reused in soil / agriculture. The European sewage sludge directive encourages the reuse of sewage sludges in agriculture in order to benefit from the nutrients present in the sludge. However, in order to safeguard the quality of the receiving soil, the directive applies environmental standards for several parameters, namely a number of heavy metals. Other European countries have also introduced national limits for other pollutants of concern in sludges, however in Ireland only the limits for heavy metals currently apply. An EPA-funded research project examined the potential health and water quality impacts of application of sludge residues (referred to as ‘biosolids’) to agricultural land. This concluded that ‘a matter of concern is that unlegislated metals and PPCPs (pharmaceutical and personal care products), which were found to be present in biosolids originating from a selection of the WWTPs examined in this study, may be inadvertently applied to land. With multiple applications over several years, these may build up in the soil and may enter the food chain; this gives rise to concerns over the continued application of biosolids to land in Ireland’. This is an area where further research is needed to ensure that the nutrient value in sludges can be sustainably exploited while preventing any associated impacts on soils and subsequently on human health.
Contributors to noise in our environment
The most recent assessment carried out under the Environment Noise Directive (END) indicates that road transport noise is by far the most significant contributor to annoyance and sleep disturbance in Ireland. The END assesses noise from a relatively strategic viewpoint, and the assessment is based on modelling of noise levels.
The strategic noise map generated by the END is designed to assess noise exposure in a given area, resulting from particular noise sources for major roads (>3 million vehicle passages/annum), major railways (>30,000 train passages/annum), major airports (>50,000 air movements/annum), & major cities agglomerations with >100,000 inhabitants, which in Ireland includes the cities of Dublin, Cork and Limerick). The END data does not consider, for example, local noise nuisance issues related to noisy pubs/shops, neighbourhood and neighbour-neighbour noise issues.
Local authorities have a significant role in dealing with these local noise issues and the most recent data (from 2019) indicates that local authorities received more than 2,000 noise complaints annually. More than 50% of these complaints were recorded by the four Dublin local authorities (with 27% alone to Dublin City Council), indicating the significant pressures on the noise environment in urban areas.
To conclude, the key messages to tackle the environmental noise issue are that integrating air pollution and noise mitigation measures (and climate actions), particularly in transport management, can bring many benefits. Local authorities need to take a much stronger leadership role in dealing with noise complaints from the public, and a National noise planning guidance for local authorities is needed to support and promote the proactive management of noise.
Status of Bathing Waters in Ireland
The EPA report, Bathing Water Quality in Ireland 2020 has found that the overall quality of Ireland's bathing water remains high with 142 of 148 identified bathing waters meeting or exceeding the minimum required EU standards. These provide a high level of protection for bathers. Three quarters of bathing waters were classified as Excellent with 111 bathing waters meeting the standard - up four from 2019. However, four bathing waters failed to meet the minimum standard and are classified as Poor.
Members of the public can find out about bathing water quality on the EPA's Beaches.ie website (www.beaches.ie), or on bathing water notice boards at the beaches.
Status of radioactivity in Ireland
Levels of radioactivity in the Irish environment have been routinely monitored since 1982. In 2015, EPA reported on comprehensive measurements of radioactivity in air, drinking water, marine environmental samples and a range of foods. The data confirmed that the levels of artificial radionuclides in the Irish environment are low and do not pose a significant risk to the health of the Irish population.
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas formed in the ground by the radioactive decay of uranium, which is present in all rocks and soils. Radon is diluted to very low concentrations outdoors, however, it can build up to high concentrations inside buildings. Exposure to radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in Ireland and is linked to the development of 300 cases of lung cancer each year. High radon concentrations can be found in any part of the country; however, the EPA has identified certain areas which are more prone to radon as High Radon Areas. The EPA regularly runs local awareness campaigns in High Radon Areas in order to raise awareness of the risks from radon and to encourage homeowners to test their homes.
The Irish building regulations also require measures to be taken to reduce the impacts of indoor radon levels. Implementation of the Irish building regulations relating to radon prevention is estimated to have resulted in a 13% reduction in average radon concentrations in Irish homes, with a 26% reduction demonstrated in High Radon Areas (2015 data compared to 2002 data).
Climate change, health and wellbeing
In Europe, the impacts of climate change on human health and wellbeing include flooding, extreme temperatures, air pollution, vector-borne disease and waterborne and food-borne diseases. Climate change is likely to alter risks to public health and wellbeing in Ireland. The key climate change-related exposures of importance to human health are likely to be increases in heatwave-related health impacts, decreases in cold-related health impacts, increases in flood-related health impacts, and an increase in the frequency of respiratory diseases due to changes in pollen and pollutant distributions, and also potentially due to the occurrence of forest fires.
Pharmaceuticals and chemicals in the environment
Widespread and excessive use, overuse and misuse of antimicrobial agents, particularly antibiotics, has significantly contributed to the development and spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) worldwide. AMR occurs when microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi develop the ability to resist the action of the drugs (antimicrobials such as antibiotics, antifungals, etc.) designed to combat them and are capable of multiplying in its presence. It is unfortunately commonplace that antimicrobials which were relied on and effective 20 years ago, are now failing. It is estimated that AMR results in 33,000 deaths annually in Europe, plus related costs, resulting from healthcare expenses and productivity losses, of over €1.5 billion. In 2017 the EU Commission adopted the EU One Health Action Plan against AMR, while Irelands National Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance (iNAP) was also published in 2017.
The presence of persistent manmade chemicals in the environment is also a significant issue which will impact on the environment and human health for many generations. Chemicals can be introduced to the environments at many points throughout the lifecycle of the chemical including during manufacturing of the chemicals, in industrial processes where it is used (for example in waste water or air emissions), during use of products which contain chemicals (e.g. detergents) and during disposal or recovery of materials. Whilst individual chemicals can result in environmental and health effects, there is also particular concern about the potential synergistic impacts from mixtures of chemicals, the impacts of which are largely unknown at present. Many of these chemicals were (or are still) used in processes and products without initially understanding the detrimental unintended effects which these chemicals can subsequently have on the environment. This legacy of inadequate chemicals management is now a substantial environmental and human health issue which will likely take generations to address.