Ireland should move towards achieving the health-based WHO air quality guidelines

  • Air quality in Ireland is generally good, however, there are concerning localised issues that are impacting negatively on the air we breathe.
  • Ireland met all of its EU legal requirements in 2021, but it did not meet the new health-based WHO guidelines in 2021.
  • Ireland and Europe should move towards achieving the health-based WHO air quality guidelines.
  • It is estimated that there are approximately 1,300 premature deaths annually in Ireland due to poor air quality from fine particulate matter (PM2.5).
  • The choices we make in how we heat our homes and how we travel directly impacts the quality of the air we breathe.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has today launched its annual air quality report Air Quality in Ireland 2021. The report shows that, while air quality in Ireland is generally good and compares favourably with many of our European neighbours, there are concerning localised issues which lead to poor air quality.  While Ireland met EU legal air quality limits in 2021,  it did not meet the health-based World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guidelines for a number of pollutants including: particulate matter (PM), nitrogen Dioxide (N02), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and ozone (O3) due to the burning of solid fuel in our towns and villages and traffic in our cities.

Poor air quality has a negative impact on people’s health and there are an estimated 1,300 premature deaths in Ireland per year due to particulate matter in our air. Air monitoring results in 2021 from EPA stations across Ireland show that fine particulate matter (PM2.5), mainly from burning solid fuel in our homes, and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) mainly from road traffic, remain the main threats to good air quality.

Launching the report, Air Quality in Ireland 2021, Dr Micheál Lehane, Director of the EPA’s Office of Radiation Protection & Environmental Monitoring, said,

‘The EPA’s air quality monitoring carried out in 2021 has shown that Ireland met all of its EU legal requirements in 2021.  However, we would not have met the new WHO air quality guidelines for health. Meeting the new WHO guidelines for air quality will be a major challenge for the country, however the report identifies a number of solutions to move towards these guideline levels’’.

In the report the EPA states that:

  • Ireland and Europe should move towards achieving the health-based WHO air quality guidelines.
  • The planned National Clean Air Strategy for Ireland needs to be published and fully implemented.
  • Local Authorities must provide more resources to increase air enforcement activities.
  • National investment in clean public transport is needed across the country.

Pat Byrne, EPA Programme Manager, said,

‘’Air quality in Ireland is generally good, however, there are localised issues that are impacting negatively on air quality and our health.  In our towns and villages monitoring identifies high levels of particulate matter associated with burning solid fuels and in our larger cities high levels of nitrogen dioxide is associated with road traffic. There are options and solutions to help improve the air we breathe. Changes we make to how we heat our homes and finding alternative ways to travel can immediately impact our local air quality’’.

The EPA’s Air Quality in Ireland 2021 report is now 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 online at https://airquality.ie/. 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.

You can also find out how to improve air quality from the EPA’s How we can improve the air we breathe  infographic or check out the ‘ABC for Cleaner Air’ campaign from the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications, which highlights some simple steps we can all make and help reduce pollution from solid fuels.

Ambient air pollution: Ambient (outdoor) air pollution is recognised as a major environmental risk to health internationally. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ambient air pollution accounts for an estimated 4 million deaths per year worldwide due to stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma. In children and adults, both short- and long-term exposure to ambient air pollution can lead to reduced lung function, respiratory infections and aggravated asthma. https://www.who.int/airpollution/ambient/health-impacts/en/.

The European Environment Agency (EEA) estimated that there are approximately 1,300 premature deaths annually in Ireland due to poor air quality from fine particulate matter (PM2.5). See EEA 2021 @ https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/air-quality-in-europe-2021/table-4

National Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Programme:

The EPA, working with local authorities and other public bodies, has established 97 air monitoring stations, up to the end of 2021 and the network will be completed with 116 stations nationwide by the end of 2022. Monitoring data from these stations is available in real time on the website https://airquality.ie/ and the data is used to inform national policy and meet Ireland’s commitments to European reporting.

New developments

LIFE Emerald is a four-year, EU – Irish government funded forecasting and modelling project which started in 2021. It will allow the public to make more informed health related decisions on a daily basis with the with the help of a 3-day air quality forecast, and near-realtime and historical air quality maps for the entire country, https://www.epa.ie/environment-and-you/air/life-emerald/ .

The EPA is also supporting citizen science projects such as the GLOBE project and Clean Air Together (CAT) https://www.cleanairtogether.ie/ . This is done to create a better understanding of NO2 air pollution. The first measurement campaign took place in 2021 with 1,000 citizens across Dublin participating which after a successful campaign in Dublin, has moved to Cork in September 2022. See @ Clean Air Together (CAT) Cork 2022. https://www.cleanairtogether.ie/

Figure 1 National Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Network in 2021

Table 1 Selected pollutants measured in 2021 and their adherence to EU legal limit values and WHO air quality guideline levels

Pollutant Number of stations where parameter monitored 2021 EU legal limit values WHO Air Quality Guideline (AQG) level or EEA reference level
PM10 87 No exceedances Above annual WHO AQG level at 8 stations. Above daily WHO AQG level at 21 stations
PM2.5 81 No exceedances Above annual WHO AQG level at 65 stations. Above daily WHO AQG level at 61 stations
NO2 30 No exceedances Above WHO annual or 24 hour AQG level at 30 stations
Ozone (O3) 21 No exceedances Above WHO AQG level at 21 stations
Sulphur dioxide (SO2) 15 No exceedances Above WHO AQG level at 15 stations
PAHs 5 No exceedances Above EEA reference level at 3 stations

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