A need to cut pollution from the air we breathe

According to new EPA data for 2016, emissions in Ireland of three of the five key air pollutants, that are bad for our health and our environment, increased that year. Ammonia, nitrogen oxides and non-methane volatile organic compounds are the three problem ones – so what can be done?










Some of the sources of air pollution in Ireland include slurry and artificial fertiliser, car exhaust fumes and smoke from burning solid fuel.

Air pollution is the top environmental cause of premature death in Europe with it resulting in the deaths of around half a million people annually. The most common causes of premature death due to poor air quality are strokes and heart disease.


The recent EPA report says that ammonia emissions in Ireland have been increasing since 2011 and were above the specified EU emission limit in 2016. Emissions of nitrogen oxides and non-methane volatile organic compounds, while in compliance with EU limits, are increasing. Particulate matter emissions and sulphur dioxide emissions are also pollutants of our air.

Air pollutions can result in a range of health problems such as asthma. Nitrogen oxides can cause other diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, stroke and COPD. These gases can also pollute soil and surface water and damage vegetation. Some air pollutants also contribute to global warming.


Some of the nitrogen from the application of fertiliser gets into the air as ammonia and can have adverse effects on water and vegetation. According to Stephen Tracey of the EPA, “Ammonia limits have been breached due to the rapid expansion of dairy and beef production in Ireland in recent years”.

Power generation plants and motor vehicles especially diesel engines are major sources of nitrogen oxides. They are also emitted from artificial fertiliser application and from urine / dung of farm animals.

Non-methane volatile organic compounds are emitted as gases by products such as paints and glues. They also arise from incomplete combustion of fuels and from the storage and handling of animal manure and fertilisers in agriculture.

Particulate matter comes from vehicle exhaust emissions, some industries and the burning of solid fuel. In the case of solid fuel, both outside and indoor air can be polluted. Carbon monoxide poisoning is also a risk from solid fuel and gas/oil boiler exhaust fumes, if they are not properly vented. (For safety tips see carbonmonoxide.ie) Outdoor air pollution in wintertime in many of our towns can, ironically, lead to respiratory problems for people out walking for the good of their health!

Sulphur dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil can cause acidification of soils and surface waters and the corrosion of buildings and monuments. The use of low-sulphur content fuels has helped to keep the level under EU limits.


An Taisce have asked Agriculture Minister, Michael Creed “if he will take personal responsibility for reversing this upsurge in ammonia pollution his department has specifically lobbied in favour of?” However, they ask how this can be done when the EPA report states “Limiting and reducing ammonia emissions into the future could be problematic given the strong performance of the agriculture sector in line with the ambitious targets of Food Wise 2025”. An Taisce also point out that the EPA says that this will “cause damage to air quality and health and make future compliance with EU limits more challenging.” In addition An Taisce questions why the recently secured derogation from the EU Nitrates Directive was sought by the Government, since the Directive aims to protect air and water quality from excessive nitrogen usage.


Action is needed to reduce air pollutants in the agricultural and transport sectors and also in the home. Improved practices in fertiliser and slurry spreading can help reduce pollution and save costs. Anaerobic digesters on larger farms can improve nutrient recycling, waste treatment and odour control – and they also generate energy. Given the need for low-carbon and non-polluting enterprises there is a need to focus on the development of such alternatives.

In transport, we need to replace diesel vehicles with hybrid and electric ones. In the home, particulate matter pollution from the burning of solid fuel can be reduced by retrofitting homes to an A or B energy standard and by installing cleaner technologies like heat pumps.

Note: The EPA report is available at epa.ie as well as ‘real time’ information on air quality across Ireland. Also the site has information on reducing radon – it’s a naturally occurring radioactive gas that occurs in some homes and is damaging to people’s health.

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