The silent killer

Air pollution poses a bigger threat to our health that we may think. Credit: archiobjects.org

Air pollution is one of the most pressing consequences of our impact on the planet.

It contributes to global warming and depletion of the ozone layer. It has begun to impact the physical health of millions, not just in far off industrial cities, but close to home. In 2015, just over 400,000 premature deaths in the European Union (EU) were caused by air pollution. In Ireland it kills 1,200 people every year, according to the European Environmental Agency. 

The Irish Independent reported that New Ross, county Wexford, had worse air quality than the 2008 Olympic Games held in one of China’s most polluted cities, Beijing, where there were concerns about the athletes exposure to smog.

At the beginning of February, hundreds of schools, as well as universities in Bangkok, were forced to close due to a buildup of smog that lasted for over two weeks. This is a problem that has been building in the city for years due to loose policy issues regarding open fires and particularly inefficient vehicles that produce harmful smoke.

In 2013, a nine-year-old girl from the UK died and her mother is currently seeking to have her cause of death officially recorded as air pollution. A scientific analysis found that many of the times she was hospitalised with asthma coincided with pollution spikes in the area she lived, just off London’s very busy South Circular Road. She suffered with asthma attacks so bad they sometimes triggered seizures and admitted to hospital 27 times over three years.

According to the HSE, Ireland has the fourth highest prevalence of asthma worldwide. Approximately one in eight people in the country are affected by it and it is the most common respiratory condition in Ireland.  Between 1995 and 2003 prevalence of asthma in 13 – 14 year old students increased by 40 per cent. The 1,200 deaths caused by air pollution are mostly due to cardiovascular disease caused by pollutants entering the bloodstream through the lungs.

These deaths are due to fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which are air pollutants with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers and smaller. These pollutants are often made up of substances like carbon, sulphur, nitrogen and metal compounds. They are harmful to lungs and cannot be filtered by common masks or totally cleared by rainfall.

The largest source of air pollutants are emitted from burning of fossil fuels as well as industrial processes and solvent use. The European Environmental Agency (EEA) reported that transport, agriculture, power plants, industry and households are the largest culprits in Europe.

Air pollution has shortened lives, increased medical costs in economies and also caused reduced productivity due to working days lost to ill health.

Businesses, public buildings and households contribute to almost half of the PM2.5 and carbon monoxide emissions in the EU. Approximately 90 per cent of Ammonia emissions and 80 per cent of Methane emissions in the EU come from agriculture. Around 60 per cent of sulphur oxides come from energy production and distribution. The agriculture sector accounts for almost 100 per cent ammonia emissions in Ireland arising from the application of fertilisers.

Ammonia contributes heavily to eutrophication, the unnatural enrichment of the soil or water often by runoff from land resulting in the growth of aquatic plant life which causes a depletion of dissolved oxygen.

Ireland is actually within EU limit values for its level of air pollution, it’s fortunate enough to have a windy and rainy climate which clears the air. However, it is consistently treading close to crossing back over the line. Ireland exceeded the World Health Organization’s (WHO) more stringent air quality guideline values at a number of monitoring sites for PM2.5 IN 2017.

“Our figures show that emissions of three of the five main pollutants are going in the wrong direction.  Higher emissions of these pollutants will cause damage to air quality and health and make future compliance with EU limits more challenging,” said Stephen Treacy Senior Manager with the Environmental Protection Agency about pollution figures from 2016.

The UK is a close example of the consequences in falling behind in air quality goals. The EU took the the UK, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Romania to the European Court of Justice which has the power to impose multi million euro fines if the countries do not comply with guidelines set out in the Clean Air Policy Package 2013.

Róise McGagh

Image credit: archiobjects.org