Almost 1,000 lives a year could be saved by better air pollution controls, new report warns

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Almost 1,000 lives a year could be saved on the island of Ireland if authorities adopt international guidelines on air pollution, a new report claims.

The major cross-border assessment reveals that around 2,600 premature deaths can be attributed to air pollution – 1,700 in the Republic and 900 in Northern Ireland – annually. 

The study, Air Pollution and Mortality on the Island of Ireland, launched by Environment Minister Eamon Ryan today, was commissioned by the Irish Heart Foundation and British Heart Foundation Northern Ireland and compiled by experts from Queen’s University Belfast and Technological University Dublin. 

The World Health Organisation recommends air quality guideline levels for harmful particulate matter, largely caused by the burning of solid fuels, of 5 micrograms per cubic metre.

But the data states that many people, North and South, are exposed to air pollution “well in excess” of this.

Some of the blackspots with the highest pollution levels are in the Republic – with Limerick, Dublin and Waterford cities experiencing some of the worst air quality.

The heart charities are calling on both governments to collaborate to improve air quality across the island.

“We know that across the island of Ireland, poor air quality is continuing to have a detrimental impact on public health,” said Irish Heart Foundation CEO, Tim Collins. 

“This report estimates that there could be almost 1,000 fewer premature deaths per year attributable to air pollution on the island if we are to achieve fine particulate matter pollution levels in line with the updated 2021 WHO guideline level. 

“The findings make for stark reading and serve to shed some light on the size of the problem of air pollution.”

He called for an all-island strategy to make the WHO guidelines enforceable on both sides of the Border – and help for households experiencing fuel poverty to lessen their reliance on solid fuels to heat their homes.

Particulate matter or PM2.5 can damage blood vessels, causing them to become narrower and harder, and can also cause abnormal heart rhythms and increase blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart attacks and stroke.

The report found the biggest risk to life from air pollution is heart disease, with 680 heart disease and stroke deaths in the Republic and 300 in Northern Ireland linked to the inhalation of PM2.5.

Environment, Climate and Communications Minister, Eamon Ryan, welcomed the “valuable report”, which he said shines a spotlight on the impact of residential heating and transport on air quality.

“The report reaffirms what I and this Government have always acknowledged – that there are no safe levels of air pollution, and taking into account all its negative effects, the onus is on us to move towards the new WHO guidelines,” he said.

Head of British Heart Foundation Northern Ireland, Fearghal McKinney, said “too many deaths across the island are attributable to air pollution”.

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