Denise Doherty reports on the latest developments in tackling air pollution
Ambient air pollution poses a major risk to health and is the leading environmental cause of premature death in the EU. Contaminated air accounts for an estimated four million deaths annually worldwide, and around 300,000 premature deaths every year in Europe. In children and adults, both short- and long-term exposure to air pollution can lead to major adverse respiratory outcomes, including reduced lung function, respiratory infections, and aggravated asthma.
Revising European law
In September 2023, the European Parliament voted in favour of a revised law to improve air quality in the EU. A total of 363 MEPs voted in favour, 226 voted against, and 46 abstained on the vote. The proposals set limits on several dangerous substances, including particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulphur dioxide. They put forward stricter targets than those initially proposed by the Commission. The new proposals are intended to ensure air quality in the EU is not harmful to human health, natural ecosystems, or biodiversity, and would align EU legislation with the most recent World Health Organisation (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines. MEPs also stress that the air quality standards proposed by the Commission should be an intermediate objective to be reached as soon as possible and by 2030 at the latest. However, the target for full alignment with the WHO limits is not until 2035.
The need to harmonise the currently fragmented and “unintuitive” air quality indices across the EU was recognised. It was agreed that indices must be comparable, clear, and publicly available with hourly updates so citizens can protect themselves during high levels of air pollution, and before obligatory alert thresholds are reached. They should be accompanied by information about symptoms related to air pollution peaks, and the associated health risks for each pollutant, including information tailored to vulnerable groups. Parliament also argued that citizens whose health is damaged should have a stronger right to compensation if the new rules are broken.
MEPs proposed that in addition to air quality plans, which are required when EU countries exceed limits, all member states would also have to create air quality roadmaps that set out short- and long-term measures in order to comply with the new limit values. Negotiating with the Council on the final drafting of the law is the next stage of the process.
Responding to the vote on behalf of the European Respiratory Society (ERS), Prof Zorana Jovanovic Andersen, Chair of the ERS environment and health committee, described the vote as “an important step in the right direction toward clean air for all, even though the full alignment with WHO was moved from 2030 to 2035”.
“Fully aligning the EU air quality standards with WHO 2021 guidelines is key to improving the quality of the air we breathe and helping mitigate the effects of climate change. This in turn will improve lung health, prevent new disease, and lower the economic cost of treating respiratory disease. On behalf of our 30,000 members, and their patients, we have been calling on our MEPs to urgently reduce emissions of air pollution and greenhouse gases, and mitigate the effects of climate change. This vote shows they were listening. Now, it’s vital that member states in the Council follow the science and listen to citizens to put health in the centre of their political agreement.”
Air quality in Ireland
Air quality in Ireland is generally reasonable; however, localised issues of concern have been identified. Air Quality in Ireland 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) annual air quality report, was published in September 2023. According to the report, Ireland compares favourably with many other European countries, and met all of its EU legal requirements in 2022. However, like many other EU countries, it did not meet the more stringent health-based WHO air quality guidelines. The report shows that WHO guidelines for a number of pollutants, including particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and ozone were not achieved.
Launching the report, Dr Micheál Lehane, Director of the EPA’s Office of Radiation Protection and Environmental Monitoring, said: “The EPA’s air quality monitoring has shown that Ireland met all of its EU legal requirements in 2022. However, we did not meet the WHO air quality guidelines for health. This highlights the immediate challenge to move towards the WHO air quality guidelines in the Clean Air Strategy. While undoubtedly challenging, the significantly positive impacts of clean air on health are clear, and the report identifies some of the actions that are necessary to achieve the health-based air quality guidelines.”
The European Environment Agency has estimated that there are approximately 1,300 premature Irish deaths annually due to poor air quality from fine particulate matter alone. Along with nitrogen dioxide, it is the primary threat to clean air in the country, according to results from EPA stations across Ireland. These pollutants are primarily the result of burning solid fuel in towns and villages, and high volumes of traffic in cities. Elevated levels of these pollutants are often associated with cold, still weather from late autumn through to early spring.
The report further identifies the critical role for local authorities in enforcement, implementation of existing plans, and investment in infrastructure to encourage cleaner and healthier air quality choices:
Local authorities must provide more resources to increase air enforcement activities and implement the new solid fuel regulations.
Dublin local authorities must fully implement the Dublin Region Air Quality Plan 2021 to improve nitrogen dioxide levels.
Investment in clean public transport infrastructure across the country must be maintained and increased.
More safe footpaths and cycle lanes must be created to continue to increase active travel as a viable and safe alternative to car use and its associated nitrogen dioxide emissions.
EPA Programme Manager Mr Pat Byrne said: “The localised issues that we see in the 2022 monitoring results impact negatively on air quality and health. Monitoring stations across Ireland recorded high levels of particulate matter associated with burning solid fuels in our towns and villages, and high levels of nitrogen dioxide in our larger cities associated with road traffic. We can have immediate impacts on our local air quality by making changes in how we heat our homes and finding alternative ways to travel. These actions also have positive climate impacts.”
National ambient air quality monitoring programme
The EPA continually monitors air quality across Ireland from a multitude of stations and provides the air quality index for health and real-time results online. Working with local authorities and other public bodies, it aimed to have established a total of 116 stations nationwide by the end of 2023. Monitoring data from these stations is available in real-time on the website, and the data is used to inform national policy and meet Ireland’s commitments to European reporting. Results are updated hourly on the website, and people can log on at any time to check whether the current air quality is good, fair, or poor.
LIFE Emerald is a four-year, EU-Irish Government-funded forecasting and modelling project that started in 2021. It will allow the public to make more informed health-related decisions on a daily basis with the help of a three-day air quality forecast and near-real-time and historical air quality maps for the entire country.
The EPA is also supporting citizen science projects such as the GLOBE project and ‘Clean Air Together programme’ to create a better understanding of nitrogen dioxide air pollution, in particular. The first measurement campaign took place in 2021 with 1,000 citizens across Dublin participating. After successful campaigns in Dublin, and then Cork in 2022, Clean Air Together moved to Galway for 2023.