AIR quality in smaller towns is worse than in our major cities because of the burning of coal.
And new research commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows that the air in Letterkenny, Co Donegal is not meeting minimum legal limits, putting thousands of people at risk of respiratory disease.
The interim results, obtained by the Irish Independent, also show that Tralee in Kerry is barely meeting the EU limits, and that there are major health concerns about air quality caused by burning coal with a high sulphur content.
The study comes as the Government today announces that it has commissioned an all-island air quality study in association with the Northern Ireland assembly, with a view to introducing a ban on smoky coal in all 32 counties.
The Irish Independent recently revealed that Environment Minister Phil Hogan wants to ban smoky coal to help reduce the incidence of asthma and other respiratory diseases across the population.
Mr Hogan said that EU standards only provided a "minimum level" of protection, but any move to ban smoky coal across the State will be politically difficult, as cleaner forms of fuel are more expensive.
The minister said a ban, already in place in Dublin since 1990 and now applying to all cities and towns with populations over 15,000 people, had clear benefits.
"The ban has clearly been effective in reducing air pollution with proven benefits for human health and our environment," he said. "I am convinced of the health benefits from a national ban and these benefits should be extended to all citizens through a nationwide smoky coal ban."
Some 470,000 people have asthma here, one of the highest rates worldwide, and the ban is planned to be introduced within three years.
People with respiratory conditions like asthma can be badly affected by harmful air particles that result from pollutants, including the burning of coal.
The move has been welcomed by the Asthma Society of Ireland, which said 85pc of people favoured a ban if it would improve air quality.
"Adults who suffer from asthma miss an average of 12 days of work each year, and children miss ten days of school," Sharon Cosgrave from the society said.
"Asthma also has a severe impact on quality of life for sufferers, the largest chronic disease group in the country. People have as much right to breath clean air as they do to drink clean water and eat safe food."
Professor Pat Goodman from DIT led a team that studied air quality in four towns - Navan, Letterkenny, Killarney and Tralee. The results are currently being finalised by the EPA.
"Overall air quality is quite good but we still have some issues. Where a coal ban is brought in, there is a 50pc drop in air pollution levels almost immediately," said Prof Goodman.
Letterkenny Mayor Dessie Larkin said he was 'shocked' at the EPA report and asked: "Why have we never been told about this?''
He said a smoky coal ban came into place in the town on May 1. "But this was because of European legislation because the population of the town had grown to above 20,000," he said.
"I'm all in favour of this ban, but it would be good for us to have those sorts of statistics to show citizens that the ban is worthwhile."
Cllr Larkin said the new bylaws, however, would have a serious impact on many families because of the extra cost of smokeless fuel and carbon taxes.