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Reducing air pollution for the sake of our health

By Dr Cale Lawlor - 19th Mar 2023

air pollution

Air pollution has been linked to a wide range of conditions, but action can be taken to tackle the problem

It must be stated that Ireland has relatively clean air; internationally, Ireland is ranked as having some of the lowest levels of air pollution. That does not mean that our levels of air pollution are safe. Estimates show that Ireland loses about 1,300 people to air pollution annually in the form of premature mortality, and the city of Dublin loses €431.5 million a year in social costs related to air pollution. Even at the relatively lower levels of pollution that Ireland has, there is still a large health and economic loss. Globally, things are much more dire.

Air pollution kills people: Nearly nine million people, and half a million in Europe, each year. It is the single most significant environmental risk factor in Europe. Globally, nearly double the population of Ireland dies every year from breathing unclean air before they would have otherwise if they had clean air. In their streets, in their schools, in their workplaces and in their homes. The bulk of these deaths are in low- and middle-income countries, mainly China and India, where it is estimated up to 30 per cent of all deaths are related to air pollution (above the global average of 20 per cent). To put it simply: One-third of all deaths in China and India, and one-fifth of all deaths on the planet are due to unclean air.

Conditions

Air pollution has been linked to a wide range of conditions: Heart disease; high blood pressure; diabetes; stroke; multiple cancers; leukaemia in children; neonatal heart malformation; asthma; and acute and chronic lung disease. Some of these effects are immediate: Breathing in gases can cause acute breathing difficulties. Others show a lag; when air pollution levels rise, hospital admissions for stroke and heart attack rise over the next few days, as analysis in Dublin has shown. But many of these health effects can lag years, such as the effect on unborn babies. Children in general suffer the impacts a lot more, and will carry previous exposure risk through their lives, suffering outcomes up to decades later. This happens wherever air pollution is present; no level of air pollution exposure is safe.

Categories

Air pollution comes in two main categories: Gases and aerosols. Gases such as nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, and ozone, arise from transport, industry, soil, agriculture, coal burning, volcanoes, and environmental conditions. Aerosols make up the rest of pollution and include dusts, carbon compounds, metals and other organics, and come largely from industry, transport, cars (including brake pads and tires), and burning wood, coal and fossil fuels. Aerosols are sorted by size (particulate matter (PM)) and most air pollution reports focus on the very small particles (those smaller than 2.5µm (PM2.5)). The smaller the particle, the deeper into the lungs it can settle, be absorbed and enter the body’s cells. Once inside the cells, these small particles set off inflammation, where the body mounts an attack against the foreign matter. A prolonged state of inflammation, especially in blood vessels, can start the chain leading to heart attack and stroke.

Reports

Recent local and international reports have given valuable insights into the origin of Irish air pollution. With Dublin being the largest city and capital, most reports have focused on the city and its air quality. A European Commission report in 2021 looked at PM2.5 in European cities, and their sources, to help guide cities in fighting pollution. The Dublin analysis showed the major sources of sulphur dioxide and small particles (PM2.5) levels in the city were industry and homes. In the homes, small particles come from burning coal, wood, and peat. The main source of nitrogen oxide gases was traffic, and this was the finding of a recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on air quality in Dublin in response to the exceedance of the safe EU limit for these gases in 2019. The traffic density in and around Dublin was the main cause of the exceedance. This is quite significant; 13 per cent of new asthma globally is from NO2 gas exposure, and 92 per cent of these new asthma events occurred in areas where levels were below the previous World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. The air in Dublin is likely fuelling new cases of childhood asthma.

The EPA recommended that traffic be reduced in and around Dublin through designating low emissions zones, provision of public transport, and encouragement and support of active transport, such as walking and cycling.


The EPA recommended that traffic be reduced in and around Dublin

Action

Ireland has successfully tackled air pollution-related harm before. The Smoky Coal Ban, which was introduced in 1990, dramatically improved the air quality in Ireland, and has been estimated to have saved 8,000 lives in Dublin alone. Currently, we are awaiting the Clean Air Act from the Government, which it is hoped will set ambitious targets, guidelines and initiatives to reduce the harm done in Ireland from air pollution.

On the international front, the WHO has recently revised its air quality guidelines, in many cases reducing the threshold of acceptable risk for pollutants. It is expected that the EU will follow this with revising its air quality guidelines in the coming years, mandating lower acceptable levels of air pollution in the name of public health. While these changes may be difficult, they will help build a cleaner society and protect the health of people who breathe air, which is all of us. Initiatives to reduce air pollution often work to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and the fight against climate change is also a fight against air pollution.

Locally, we can do a lot to improve the air quality and protect the people around us; choosing active and public transport options over private car use is a part of the solution and a way to cleaner air. Although cyclists in urban areas are forced to sit in the fumes of idling cars at traffic lights, cycling has been shown to outweigh the health effects of air pollution exposure along the cycle, and the more people do this, the safer it will continue to become. Reducing burning of solid fuels in our homes can greatly reduce the strain on local air and hospitals.

There is also a role for changes in the urban environment to help improve air quality. Measures that reduce the speed and density of cars decrease the pollutants put into urban environments. Designating zones of low traffic, putting a charge on commuting by car and reducing speed limits all have a role to play. Berlin recently reduced traffic speed limits, which decreased nitrogen oxide levels – as nitrogen oxides are Dublin’s main air pollution source, reducing speed limits could do the same. More green spaces would interrupt the flow of air pollution and help absorb air pollution by filtering it from the air.

Cleaner industries, cleaner energy production and cleaner agriculture will contribute to cleaner air, both in urban and rural settings, and across borders, as air pollution does not stay fixed to its origin point, but moves around freely, untied to the local environment.

However, these changes rarely happen without significant public pressure. Citizens and residents voicing their support for measures to reduce air pollution, such as reducing traffic and promoting public and active transport, help enable changes to be enacted and effective. Supporting moves for cleaner industries, transport and policies puts pressure on polluters to improve, and governments to act.

Air pollution is an incredibly significant health issue. While having relatively clean air on a regional and global scale, Ireland does still experience harm from air pollution. Individual, organisational and government initiatives to reduce air pollution, improve air quality, and decrease the health and social burden posed by air pollution will pay off.

References available on request

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