The likelihood that the burning of highly polluting solid fuels this winter will dramatically increase due to the energy crisis has been pointed out by leading air pollution experts.
This will result in days when air quality exceeds EU recommended levels due to increased burning of coal, peat and wet wood, they predict – despite tough new regulations , including a nationwide ban on smoky coal due next month.
The problem was first highlighted in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) latest annual report on air quality in Ireland.
Dr John Wenger of the Center for Atmospheric Chemistry Research at UCC said “the timing is really unfortunate. Ultimately the cost of fuels will be [the] essential factor this winter.
He acknowledged that many buyers will want to use smokeless charcoal, but price will inevitably dictate their choices, while people will source their own wet, unseasoned wood and peat “which are far more polluting” and a source of toxic particles, in particular PM2.5.
Legislation on solid fuel standards is welcome from a public health perspective, but has taken time as it now includes peat, turf and wood, he noted. “But I’m not particularly optimistic about the effectiveness of the legislation this winter.”
Regarding PM2.5 trends in recent years, he notes a pattern of exceedances on about 12 nights during winter in many towns and cities, due to lack of wind and poor air dispersion. At least “the EPA will be able to get a clear picture,” having expanded monitoring stations to a large number of cities.
Dr Clare Noone, an air pollution specialist at Maynooth University, echoes concerns about likely levels of air pollution this winter due to energy crises and the cost of living.
“Tackling solid fuel combustion is going to be very difficult. A recent EPA report indicated an increase in the number of homes switching to solid fuels rather than a decline, so households need help moving away from burning coal, peat and wood to heat their homes,” she added.
Air pollutants cause over seven million premature deaths a year worldwide and over 1,300 premature deaths in Ireland, mainly due to particles such as PM2.5 which can cause asthma attacks, COPD [Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and lung cancer, Dr. Noone added.
EPA monitoring shows PM2.5 from solid fuels and NO2 levels from traffic are within current EU legal limits, but these pollutants often exceed stricter World Health Organization guidelines. health (WHO) on air quality for health.
Earlier this week, the WHO and nearly 200 other health associations issued an unprecedented call for a global fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. She quoted Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the WHO in this context: “Modern addiction to fossil fuels is not just an act of environmental vandalism. From a health perspective, this is an act of self-sabotage.
The new regulations concerning solid fuels for domestic heating come into force from 31 October.
“Some of the changes that will apply are fuel products, which are 100% biomass (wood products and wood logs), must have a moisture content below 25% and it will not be possible to sell retail turf, public houses or other public places,” she explained.
There are options that can be taken to tackle air quality and climate change, she said. “We need to reduce people’s reliance on burning coal, peat and wood to heat their homes by upgrading and making homes more energy efficient.” At the same time, people’s dependence on owning a car must be reduced by providing better public transport, safe walking and cycling routes.
EPA program manager Pat Byrne said increased solid fuel burning driven by current and projected increases in gas and electricity prices was likely because “more people may consider solid fuels as a cheaper option”.
It was “a perception” rather than based on his research, he added. The EPA understands that people need to heat their homes, but has advised them to avoid coal, damp wood and peat whenever possible.
With an increasing number of new homes not installing open fires or stoves, overall particulate levels nationwide have declined, he said, “but it’s a problem at times. of the year”.
The EPA does not monitor the amount of solid fuel burned, but other reports have highlighted the need for local authorities to be more stringent in enforcing air quality regulations.