The average human being breathes in the equivalent of thirteen pints of air every minute. Breathing is one of the most basic functions of life and is a constant and immediate connection between our internal physical landscapes and the external environment. Air defines us. The quality of the air we breathe defines our physical wellbeing. Reports from the Environmental Protection Agency reveal that at times we have dangerous levels of air pollution: ammonia emissions from agriculture, sulphur dioxide from smoky coal and nitrogen dioxide from diesel cars. Candice Moen takes a closer look.


Six years ago, in 2013, An Taisce stated that poor air quality was contributing to 3,400 premature deaths every year and costing Ireland up to €6.3 billion annually. This prompted the organisation to advocate for stronger air pollution standards at a meeting of the EU Environment Council in Luxembourg in 2014. A further submission was made, in 2017, regarding the development of a National Clean Air Strategy, which would require, amongst other things, addressing emissions from industry and agriculture and investment in efficient heating, public transport and cycling infrastructure. Ian Lumley, one of An Taisce’s Advocacy Officers, stated at the time: “We can choose the food we eat and the water we drink but we can’t choose the air we breathe”. The remit of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was extended to ensure effective national monitoring, regulation and enforcement on all air pollution impacts.


Ammonia from agriculture, burning of solid fuel and emissions from transport remain the main contributors, in varying combinations, across urban and rural locations. In denser urban areas, transport emissions are more troublesome whereas, in rural towns like Monaghan, it is the burning of smoky coal during winter months and increased levels of ammonia from agriculture that are most problematic. Ammonia is nitrogen gas, generated by animal manure and synthetic fertiliser, and spread by wind. When it mixes with car fumes, it becomes one of the deadliest forms of particulate air pollution, posing a serious threat to both humans and biodiversity. Spreading slurry with a trailing shoe (see photo), dribble bar or injector system reduces the ammonia emissions up to 97% of those with a splash plate. An Taisce have called for an outright ban on splash-plate slurry spreading and an examination of intensive farming practises: “It’s high time we pulled back the curtain on this system and demanded a more sustainable approach for agriculture” that doesn’t pose major health and environmental threats.


Since the extension of the parameters of the EPA in 2017, the number of monitoring stations has more than doubled. The EPA provides a continuous service across Ireland, showing real-time results on its website. At 11:11 on Saturday 20 July, the results for the station at Kilkitt Water Works in Ballybay (monitoring County Monaghan) were well within prescribed limits. It has to be said, though, that it would be far more interesting to have monitoring stations in the centre of County Monaghan’s towns to see how they compare.

In 2018, the EPA launched a citizen science initiative in collaboration with The Globe Programme, an international science and education programme providing students and public with opportunities to participate in data collection, including air quality. The initial focus in Ireland will be the study of the atmosphere and will involve approximately 40 schools nationwide collecting data in their local area and using it to carry out scientific projects.


The EPA report made it clear that local authorities will be legally obliged to prepare “air quality action plans”. There is currently a ban on smoky fuels, introduced 30 years ago by Mary Harney, covering 80% of the State. Unfortunately, coal firms are challenging a nationwide ban that would extend to include rural towns. Traffic fumes could be addressed by providing city infrastructure that facilitates clean transport choices. There are a number of major cities around the world that have joined the “car-free” movement that encourages cycling and makes public spaces more pedestrian friendly. We all have a role to play in improving the quality of the air we breathe. Lifestyle and agricultural practises are driving it and consequently affecting people’s health and life expectancy. With inescapable evidence that our air is severely compromised, it is increasingly urgent that cities, towns and the homes populating them make the considered choices and changes that will allow us to breathe in our daily pints fresh and particulate free!

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