Wednesday 16 October 2019

Dangerously high levels of nitrogen dioxide in Dublin pose a risk to public health, EPA warn

  • New EPA report suggests Dublin is in danger of breaching EU limits on safe nitrogen dioxide levels
  • The air pollutant is linked to asthma, emphysema and other respiratory issues
  • A rise in traffic is believed to be the cause of this increased air pollution
Climate change. Stock photo
Climate change. Stock photo

Áine Kenny

A new EPA report, released today, details how public health is at risk due to high levels of nitrogen dioxide in parts of Dublin city.

Nitrogen dioxide levels are highest in certain city centre streets such as those along the quays, the M50 motorway and the entrance and exit of the Port Tunnel. Some of these areas are at risk of exceeding the European Union's legal limit for nitrogen dioxide.

Nitrogen dioxide is an air pollutant, believed to cause serious health problems such as asthma, emphysema and cellular damage.

Nitrogen dioxide is a visual pollutant because it creates a brown haze, and it also leads to the formation of acid rain.

This information was released in the Environmental Protection Agency’s new report, 'Urban Environmental Indicators – Nitrogen dioxide levels in Dublin' and it reveals the extent of air pollution in the city.

The EPA are calling for the government and other groups to tackle this issue in the report, saying there is a "need for strong, co-ordinated action by all the relevant authorities to improve air quality in Dublin."

Traffic emissions are the main source of nitrogen oxides in Ireland, along with electricity generation and industry. The EPA believe an increase in traffic in Dublin has led to this rise in air pollution.

However, levels of nitrogen dioxide are well within the EU limits in many of Dublin's residential areas, away from busy roads.

The EU's annual average limit for nitrogen dioxide is 40 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3). There is also an hourly mean value limit of 200 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3), which is considered breached if this limit is exceeded more than 18 times in one year.

The purpose of these EU-sanctioned limits is to prevent against acute ill-health. People with asthma, as well as children and the elderly, are generally the worst affected by nitrogen dioxide pollution.

If further studies confirm that the levels of nitrogen dioxide have exceeded the EU limit, local authorities in Dublin will be legally required to prepare air quality action plans to reduce air pollution in Dublin.

Previous reports by the EPA already flagged nitrogen dioxide levels in Dublin as being potentially problematic.

Dr Ciara McMahon, the EPA Programme Manager, said the new report is a cause for concern given the known health risks associated with high levels of nitrogen dioxide.

"Traffic is the dominant source of nitrogen dioxide in our urban areas and the public must be supported in taking clean transport choices if we want to reduce nitrogen dioxide concentrations in the air we breathe," she said.

Patrick Kenny, EPA Air Quality Manager, explained how the EPA gathered the data: "The findings of this report are supported by monitoring data at the new air quality monitoring station at St Johns Road West in Dublin.

"Installed in late 2018, this station is recording high levels of nitrogen dioxide. We will continue to monitor the results from this station and have started discussions with the relevant authorities.”

Cllr David Healy, Green Party spokesperson on climate, said that nitrogen dioxide is a serious issue in Dublin and that investment in motorways like the M50 have only encouraged more cars to stay on the road.

"We should to revise the policy of promoting driving. We need to encourage people to walk, increase cycling infrastructure and invest in public transport," he told Independent.ie. 

As part of the National Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Programme (2017 – 2022), new equipment to assess air quality is being installed across the country.

A new air monitoring station was set up at St John’s Road West, near Heuston Station. Data from this station was used in this new report. Another new air monitoring station is set to open on Pearse Street this summer. According to the EPA, these areas have high nitrogen dioxide levels that are likely to exceed the European annual limit.

The EPA continually monitor air quality across Ireland and provides an air quality index for health and real-time results at www.airquality.ie. Results are updated hourly.

Environment Minister Richard Bruton has described the findings as "very concerning".

"We will now convene the relevant bodies to ensure we take immediate action on this matter and improve the air quality of Dublin".

Transport Minister Shane Ross said:

“The findings of this EPA Report and the potential health concerns arising for those living and working along these routes are a matter of grave concern. We need to act and reduce NO2 emissions in urban areas. Older diesel vehicles are the key perpetrators in terms of NO2 emissions.  I am glad to report that we are already investing in new, cleaner and greener buses, electrifying Dublin commuter rail and providing generous incentives for taxis to make the switch to electric."

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