Air Pollution and Mortality on the Island of Ireland report states 1,000 lives could be saved

Published: 30 Mar, 2023

Almost 1,000 lives a year could be saved on the island of Ireland if authorities adopt and meet WHO guidelines on air pollution, according to a new report published by the Irish Heart Foundation and British Heart Foundation Northern Ireland on Thursday, 30 March.

The report, Air Pollution and Mortality on the Island of Ireland, was commissioned by the Irish Heart Foundation and British Heart Foundation Northern Ireland, and carried out by Professor Patrick Goodman of TU Dublin with colleagues from Queen’s University Belfast

The major cross-border assessment reveals that around 2,600 premature deaths can be attributable to air pollution – 1,700 in the Republic and 900 in Northern Ireland - annually. 

The World Health Organisation recommends air quality guideline levels for particulate matter (PM2.5) of 5 micrograms per cubic metre. But the report states many people living on the island of Ireland are exposed to air pollution “well in excess” of this level. Both organisations are calling on the governments to collaborate to improve air quality on the island of Ireland.

Some of the worst blackspots with the highest pollution levels were in the Republic of Ireland, with Limerick, Dublin, and Waterford cities experiencing some of the worst air quality.

It found the biggest risk to life from air pollution is heart disease, with 680 heart disease and stroke deaths in the Republic and 300 in Northern Ireland linked to the inhalation of harmful particles (particulate matter) caused by the burning of solid fuels. 

“We know that across the island of Ireland, poor air quality is continuing to have a detrimental impact on public health,” said Irish Heart Foundation CEO, Tim Collins

“This report estimates that there could be almost 1,000 fewer premature deaths per year attributable to air pollution on the island of Ireland if we are to achieve fine particulate matter pollution levels in line with the updated 2021 WHO guideline level. 

“The findings within this report make for stark reading and serve to shed some light on the size of the problem of air pollution. 

“We hope that decision-makers on the island will utilise it to move forward with bold action on air pollution to protect our health.” 

The estimates that achieving air pollution levels across the island of Ireland in line with the 2021 WHO level could, in the long run, save around 1,000 lives per year.  

At today’s launch at the Department of the Environment, Climate, and Communications, Mr Collins called for an all-island strategy to make the WHO guidelines enforceable North and South. 

“The best way to do this would be to reduce drastically the amount of solid fuel that is being burned across the island as a whole.” 

“Air pollution does not respect borders, therefore, to truly improve our air quality, governments must work together with co-ordinated policy interventions and legislation to protect our health including to completely phase out the most health-harming solid fuels, such as smokeless coal and wood, and transition to cleaner, more sustainable forms of home heating,” he said. 

He also called for assistance for households experiencing fuel poverty to help them become less reliant on solid fuels to heat their homes.

Minister Eamon Ryan, Minister for the Environment, Climate, and Communications, said: “Clean air and climate action are intrinsically linked and reducing air pollution to improve health and environmental outcomes is a core element of the Republic of Ireland’s Clean Air Strategy. We need to end the continued concentration of dirty forms of fuel so that people no longer have to endure polluted and dangerous air quality, particularly in our cities and towns.

“At the same time, we need to end their use for the health and protection of our environment and to lower our carbon emissions. As Minister, I fully support the introduction of WHO guidelines and standards and will continue to work on a range of actions – like reducing and restricting traffic congestion or introducing cleaner forms of fuel - to reduce air.”

Head of British Heart Foundation Northern Ireland Fearghal McKinney added that the report highlights the need for action on air pollution in order to save lives.  

 “Too many deaths across the island are attributable to air pollution. This report clearly shows that deaths from heart disease and strokes could be prevented by improving air quality.  

“This is an issue which requires a coordinated response across the island. There is a role for governments north and south to lead on this in order to meet World Health Organisation targets. 

“We were pleased to work with the Irish Heart Foundation on this report and we will continue to work together to highlight this issue and to improve health outcomes for everyone. 

“I want to thank the researchers for this excellent report and I look forward to continuing to work with the Irish Heart Foundation and others to save lives." 

The new figures are based on mortality data gathered in 2019 – the last year, research of this type was carried out unaffected by Covid-19. 

Please find the full report here and a shorter briefing document here.