Air quality is an issue of substantial importance on both sides of the Irish border. In October 2022, the Irish government extended solid fuel regulations restricting the sale of the worst polluting fuels used to heat homes, such as ‘smoky coal’ and ‘wet wood’. Previously, these regulations only applied in Dublin and other designated cities, but now the ban is nationwide.  North of the border, a consultation on Northern Ireland’s (NI) first ever Clean Air Strategy was launched in 2020, setting out a range of potential policies which might improve air quality in the region. However, progress has since stalled in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive.

These policy developments, or lack thereof in the case of NI, came after the WHO revised its air quality guidelines since 2005, to reflect the emerging evidence from later scientific studies showing that air pollution is much more damaging for human health than previously thought. Crucially, this implies that existing estimates of the mortality burden are too low, calling for new estimates and a heightened awareness of the scale of the challenge.

The 31st March 2023 saw the official launch of a report which estimated the mortality burden of air pollution across the island of Ireland in 2019. This report, commissioned by the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF) in collaboration with British Heart Foundation Northern Ireland (BHF-NI) and produced by researchers at Technological University Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast (including Dr Neil Rowland, Regional Clean Air Champion for Northern Ireland), provides country- and local-level estimates of the number of all-cause and circulatory-related premature deaths associated with ambient fine particulate matter (PM2.5). It also estimated how many premature deaths might have been avoided had the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) air quality guidelines been met in this year, and highlighted a range of policies which could help both countries meet these guidelines in future.

The report highlights the scale of the problem, with all parts of the island recording a population-weighted annual mean concentration above the WHO’s guideline level of 5 micrograms per cubic metre. The highest concentrations were observed in major urban locations, with Limerick City in the ROI (11.1 micrograms per cubic metre) and Belfast in NI (10.1 micrograms per cubic metre) faring the worst.

Overall, this translates to a significant mortality burden: approximately 2,600 premature deaths across the whole of the island (1,700 in ROI and 900 in NI) was attributable to airborne fine particulate matter, in this year alone. Of these premature deaths, 680 in ROI and 300 in NI were associated with cardiovascular-related disease. Had each country met the WHO guidelines in this year, then 1,000 all-cause deaths on the island could have been avoided.

Reaching the WHO level is possible but nevertheless challenging. At current rates of change, the report predicts that it won’t be until 2035 that ROI reaches this level and even later before NI does so (2040). Policies to get us there faster are urgently required . Since air pollution can cross land borders, a key challenge will be implementing effective policies on an island with two separate policy regimes. For example, airborne particulates travelling from Derry/Londonderry as a result of coal burning will undermine solid fuel restrictions which curtail emissions across the border in Donegal, as will the transport of coal south of the border. As the report points out, policy measures in each country are likely to have the biggest impact if they are implemented collaboratively.

The report shows that health impacts from air pollution are significant. This ought to provide the impetus required to push for further improvements in air quality, such as reducing levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution from road transport and minimising agricultural emissions which contribute to particulate pollution. The nationwide extension of ROI’s solid fuel regulations, along with the recent expansion of the Irish air quality monitoring network are two policy measures that NI might wish to emulate as part of a Clean Air Strategy. Such measures, along with the steps that each of us can take to reduce our own emissions – such as heating our homes with cleaner fuels and reducing our reliance on the car—will go a long way to reducing the 2,600 premature deaths associated with air pollution on the island of Ireland.

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