Wednesday 13 November 2019

How clean is the air that we breathe?

The smoky coal ban - which started in Dublin 25 years ago - is at last being extended to small-town Ireland. But not everyone thinks it's a good idea.

Dublin smog - air quality in smaller towns can be much worse than large cities
Dublin smog - air quality in smaller towns can be much worse than large cities
What harm? Fermoy resident Gloria McArdle. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Graham Clifford

It's a crisp autumnal evening in Fermoy and there's an unmistakable smoky scent in the air. Curling whiffs of smoke slowly dance out of chimneys across the North Cork town and coal men are busy delivering bags of the black stuff.

But as of autumn 2018, Fermoy and other towns of its size across the country, must adhere to a nationwide ban on smoky coal.

In announcing the move to extend the ban beyond the country's main urban centres, Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly said: "It's an unacceptable anomaly that air quality in some provincial towns during the winter is vastly poorer than in the cities and larger urban areas."

And he highlighted recent research carried out by University College Cork, which showed that air pollution levels in Killarney were 10 times higher during the night than through the day.

Not everyone is convinced though.

"I can understand why a ban is necessary in big cities, but for towns of our size, I'm not sure it's entirely necessary," says Adrian Smyth, who runs Mills Fuels just outside Fermoy.

Since the end of World War II, the business has been delivering coal to homes throughout the area and Adrian believes a lot of older locals aren't happy at being told they can't buy their regular coal anymore.

"You see there's gas in coal which makes it easier to light whereas there's no gas in the smokeless stuff," explains Adrian.

"It's less of an issue in stoves, but trying to light an open fire with some of the smokeless products can be an art. Older people, who have been burning coal all their lives, won't be too happy with that. Also of course, unless the carbon tax is reduced on smokeless products, it'll cost people at least €2 more each week during the winter months for their fuel. It might not sound like much to some, but to a pensioner with limited means, it's significant over the colder season, especially now that the fuel allowance has been cut."

His colleague Michael asks: "If this is about saving lives, why don't they just ban cigarettes? And how are they going to keep the Moneypoint power station going? With smokeless fuel? I don't think so."

Fuel distributors such as Adrian will adapt, old and young in Fermoy will get used to the smokeless products and the strength of that smoky scent in the air will dilute - but will this nationwide ban on smoky coal really improve our air quality significantly?

Those in the know say it will.

"In the region of 8,000 lives have been saved in Dublin since the introduction of the smoky coal ban in 1990 and further health and economic benefits, estimated at €53m per year, will be realised when the ban is extended nationwide," Minister Kelly proclaimed this week.

We've come a long way from the 1980s when smog choked our capital - death rates rose and the level of air pollution was so bad that Dubliners still recall blowing their nose and seeing black matter in their tissues.

With 1,800 micrograms of smoke per cubic metre, the Fair City's rates were a shocking eight times higher than the then EEC limit - dirty old town indeed.

The then environment minister Mary Harney introduced a ban on the sale, marketing and distribution of bituminous or "smoky" coal in the capital in 1990 and, virtually overnight, Dublin's caustic winter air pollution disappeared - the city could breathe again.

But as a country, where do we stand in the world's clean air table today?

Well, the Environmental Protection Agency's 2014 air quality report showed that Ireland did not exceed any legal EU limit values last year and that air quality was "currently good, relative to other EU member states".

And the World Health Organisation (WHO), which monitors air quality across the globe (though many nations do not provide regular updated information), lists Ireland in the world's top tier. While air quality in countries such as Canada, Iceland, Brunei, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Estonia is cleaner than our own, data shows that Ireland's levels of air pollutants are well below most nations on the planet. Our island location works to our benefit of course, with strong winds rolling in off the Atlantic useful in ridding our skies of any lingering harmful pollutants and, for the main part, we have limited heavy industry here.

But what of the impact of the building boom on the country, the rush to extend our road network and the sharp increase in vehicle ownership? Surely such activity can't have been good for our air quality?

The conclusions of the latest Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report into Ambient Air Quality stated that: "Increasing road transport will lead to an increase in nitrogen dioxide levels, particularly as our economy continues to recover. In the short term, efficient traffic management coupled with environmentally-sound consumer choice of transport mode and fuel is needed to minimise emissions. In the longer term, more choices in terms of public transport are needed in towns and cities."

And the current Volkswagen 'dieselgate' scandal, where the car giant produced inaccurate emissions testing results, has led to many asking if the new cars we drive are actually as environmentally-friendly as we're being told. Indeed, the Mayor of Paris has announced radical plans to ban diesel cars from the French capital by 2020 due to concerns about how much pollution the cars cause, and London may be next to take the radical step.

Once the recession hit Ireland, building and industrial activity slowed and our air quality actually improved - every smog-free cloud has a silver lining.

But as the cranes return to the national skyline and more motorists get behind the wheel, the chances of pollutants in the air are obviously increasing.

Laura Burke, the Environmental Protection Agency's director general, warned: "Ireland needs to ensure that future economic renewal and recovery is based firmly on the principles of sustainable development and that we decouple future economic growth from environmental pressures."

She added in relation to the extension of the smoky coal ban: "People's fuel choices can directly impact on air quality and on our health, particularly in our small towns and villages".

Back in Fermoy, locals with broad smiles open the door to Adrian and his son Shane as they come bearing gifts. The bag of coal has brought warmth to many a house in these parts for generations. But soon burning the stuff will land them in hot water. "I suppose it's for the best," Fermoy resident Gloria McArdle tells me, before asking: "But what harm did a bit of coal ever do? Sure there's nothing wrong with the air here in Fermoy and we've been burning coal since God was a boy."

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