21 Jan 2022

Air quality reaching unhealthy levels in parts of Offaly

Air quality reaching unhealthy levels in parts of Offaly

This graph by Alan Bell shows the daily profile of air quality measured by the EPA at Edenderry Library over November and December

AIR quality in parts of Offaly over the past number of years has reached levels that can be hazardous to health.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has four air quality monitors in the county located in Birr, Edenderry, Banagher and Tullamore. These are nationally linked and measure the air quality on an hourly basis.

While the EPA has deemed the air quality in Offaly to be generally good and urged caution with regard to peaks, the fact that these peaks are occurring around the same times during winter months is a cause of concern.

For example on December 13 at 7pm 2021, Edenderry was the worst location in the country for fine particulates with a maximum of 444 micrograms per cubic metre. Very high is classed at 71 micrograms per cubic metre or higher.

The cause of these high fine particulates in the air is the burning of solid fuel in residential homes especially during still cold nights, according to a study conducted by UCC.

There are two main types of particulate matter (PM) that are concerning. These are PM10 and PM2.5. The numbers refer to the size of the particles. PM10 has particles that are 10 micrometers or smaller and PM2.5 refers to particles that are 2.5 micrometers or smaller. PM10 is also known as coarse particulate matter and PM2.5 as fine particulate matter.

Of the two types, the smaller 2.5 is considered the most toxic, as its smaller size means it can damage the most sensitive regions of the lungs. The World Health Organisation has classed these particulates as Group 1 carcinogens. Group 1 refers to substances that definitely cause cancer.

Fine particulate matter is especially carcinogenic. A large study of over 300,000 participants from European countries found that there are no safe levels of particulates.

There are a number of diseases associated with particulate matter including cardiovascular, asthma, lung cancer, infertility, cognitive decline, premature brain ageing and Alzheimer’s.

Alan Bell is a software engineer and he has been keeping a keen eye on the EPA monitoring site and the air quality in Offaly over the last number of years. He regularly creates graphs containing the latest information from the EPA.

Alan points out that Ireland has some of the cleanest air in Europe but adds that "sometimes we have shockingly bad smog, especially in the evenings.’’

He says that this can get hidden when you do an average over the day.

"The problem is in the evenings there is a distinctive curve," says Alan.

There is a ban on burning smoky fuel in Tullamore, however, Alan says it doesn’t make much of a difference.

"In low smoke zones, you are not allowed to use the worst form of coal which stops a lot of sulphur dioxide getting into the air, but doesn't do a massive amount for the particles and things we are measuring."

He is also not a fan of burning blocks adding that these too can produce harmful particulates that are carcinogenic.

"Timber can be considered carbon-neutral because it releases the carbon that was stored when it was growing, however, it still produces air pollution, so on a public health basis, it’s not great. Oil and gas don't produce many particulates so people can lean on their central heating a bit more or use an electric heater in one room."

Alan’s advice is not to use a fire on cold and still winter nights. "If there is a storm brewing outside that’s not a problem as it will get blown away across the fields. We really don’t see accumulations during storms," reiterates Alan.

A ban on smoky fuel is to be introduced across Ireland this year.

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