Air pollution leading to shorter life expectancy – experts warn

by Rachel Cunningham
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Rachel Cunningham

Tackling Ireland’s air quality with better solid fuel regulations could lead to a better life expectancy for the population.

We are currently entering into the festive season, which many associate with Christmas trees, cold walks and family gatherings around a warming fire. However, findings presented at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Event 2021 last month indicated that the particles that we inhale from the fuels we choose to burn in domestic fireplaces or stoves could impact our health and the health of those around us, particularly the most vulnerable in our communities.

Dr Jurgita Ovadnevaite of NUI Galway, spoke about the AEROSOURCE research project, highlighting a disproportionate contribution to air pollution from residential solid fuel burning, mainly peat and wood burning, despite their minor contributions in terms of energy.

“The link between air pollution and health effects has long been acknowledged, with the WHO (World Health Organisation) describing air pollution as the single biggest environmental health risk, causing over five million premature deaths worldwide. This is not a distant, third world problem, close to half a million premature deaths occur each year in Europe, and over 1,300 in ireland, due to air pollution”, Dr Ovadnevaite cautioned.

Approximately 8,000 premature deaths have been averted in Dublin since the introduction of the smoky coal ban in 1990 and Dr Ovadnevaite suggested that further health, in addition to economic and environmental benefits, could be realised if this ban was extended nationwide.

Reporting on the AEROSOURCE research project findings relating to the air quality in Dublin, she said: “The PM (particulate matter) concentrations in Dublin were of the same level as the ones in Beijing over the same exact period. So, even if Ireland’s air quality is relatively good overall, owing to prevailing marine air masses coming from the north Atlantic, the winters are not so clean after all.”

Dr Ovadnevaite highlighted peat and wood as the main contributors to Dublin’s air pollution, creating over 70 per cent of PM mass in the county. She explained: “Secondary or supplementary home heating sources, like peat and wood burning, due to their higher emission factors, contribute little to city’s energy budget but are the main culprits for the extreme air pollution events in Dublin. This is not exclusive to Dublin, major air pollution events over all of Ireland are mostly caused by peat and wood burning, with a lower contribution from coal or oil.”

The evidence is mounting that the size and composition of the particles that we breathe, which are emitted by burning fuels or traffic emissions, could have implications for the population’s health. “This requires further study but preliminary results indicate that peat and wood are natural and harmless as long as we don’t burn them, while any burning process will produce harmful particles that cause negative health effects”, she stated.

She concluded by suggesting that one-sided policies that tackle climate change problems and reduce CO2 emissions but still promote biomass burning are insufficient, asserting: “We have to support and promote so-called ‘win-win policies’ that account for both climate change and human health.”

Dr Tim Collins, CEO of the Irish Heart Foundation, expanded on the connection between air quality and human health, outlining a number of poor health outcomes that could be attributed to the air that we breathe.

Heart disease and stroke are Europe’s number one cause of death, and Dr Collins stated that an estimated 9,000 people die from these illnesses in Ireland, while almost two million people are at risk of or living with the longterm impacts. Emphasising that this is a health concern for all,  not just older males, he cited that one in four people who have had a stroke are below the age of 65 and that heart disease kills more women than breast cancer, cervical or ovarian cancer combined.

Dr Collins noted that air pollution ranks fourth in a list of risk factors for cardiovascular disease, behind high systolic blood pressure, tobacco and dietary risks. He said: “Globally, air pollution contributes to an average loss of life expectancy of 20 months, almost as high as tobacco, and remains under appreciated as a modifiable risk factor.”

He praised the positive effect of the smoky coal ban, continuing: “Our understanding of air pollution has evolved since then. Smog may be a thing of the past but air pollution remains a significant health threat and or focus has now shifted in the last ten years from what we can see to those invisible killers, such as particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide and ozone.”

“Of the 1,400 deaths per annum in Ireland, 1,300 are attributable to PM2.5 and predominantly heart disease and stroke but also COPD, cancers, respiratory infection, impacting children, pregnant women, the elderly and those living with pre-existing health conditions most. Mortality levels are also unsurprisingly highest in the most deprived areas, where air quality is worse”, he added.

With the likelihood of annual Covid-19 vaccinations seeming an increasing possibility, air quality would appear to have a role to play in an individual’s vulnerability to a more severe infection. “We know from the last 18 months that there is now evidence that air pollution alters respiratory defence mechanisms, leading to more severe Covid-19 infections”, Dr Collins explained.

Dr Collins suggested that exposure to air pollution, like open fire usage, could negatively impact on cognitive health, too. In recent years, compelling evidence has emerged that connects short-term air pollution exposure with an increased likelihood of stroke. A study published in the Lancet this year purported that lockdown interventions led to substantial reductions in particulate matter concentrations across China and Europe, which is estimated to have prevented tens of thousands of premature deaths.

In 2020 and early 2021, the Irish Heart Foundation surveyed the public to get a sense of their understanding of this issue, finding a high level of concern about air pollution but a lack of awareness regarding its main causes.

Dr Collins described their findings as “quite worrying”, commenting: “Most people believe that transport and industry are the main sources [of air pollution], not the burning of domestic solid fuel. Most people believe that the leading cause of death from air pollution is lung disease and lung cancer, not cardiovascular disease. Just 42 per cent agreed that burning peat, wood or coal on an open fire causes indoor air pollution, which is damaging to health.”

Dr Collins suggested a number of measures that could aid Ireland in overcoming its worst air polluting offenders, including, publishing and implementing solid fuel regulations, expanding air quality monitoring and accelerating retrofitting of homes dependent on solid fuel for heating.

He recommended that Ireland look towards a future whereby burning solid fuel as a domestic heating method is completely phased out and called for a new Clean Air Act that would adopt the WHO’s air quality guidelines.

He concluded by highlighting the importance of placing health gains at the centre of how Ireland works towards a cleaner climate, so that more sustainable goals are more readily associated with the immediate health benefits for the population and future generations.

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