The likelihood that the burning of highly-polluting solid fuels this winter will increase significantly due to the energy crisis has been highlighted by leading air pollution experts.
This will result in days when air quality will exceed recommended EU levels because of increased burning of coal, peat and wet wood, they predict — despite strict new regulations including a nationwide smoky coal ban due next month.
The issue was first highlighted in the latest annual report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on air quality in Ireland.
Dr John Wenger of the Centre for Research into Atmospheric Chemistry in UCC said “the timing is really unfortunate. Ultimately the cost of fuels is going to be [the] overriding factor this winter.”
He acknowledged many purchasers will want to use smokeless coal but price will inevitably dictate their choices, while people will source their own unseasoned wet wood and peat “which is significantly more polluting” and a source of toxic particles, notably PM2.5.
The legislation on solid fuel standards is welcome from a public health perspective but has taken a long time because it now includes peat, turf and wood, he noted. “But I’m not particularly optimistic the legislation will be effective this winter.”
On PM2.5 trends in recent years, he notes a pattern of exceedances on about 12 nights during the winter in many towns and cities, due to lack of wind and little dispersion of air. At least, “the EPA will be able to get a clear picture”, having extended monitoring stations to a large number of towns.
Dr Clare Noone, a specialist in air pollution at Maynooth University, echoes concerns about likely air pollution levels this winter due to the energy and cost of living crises.
“Tackling solid fuel burning is going to be very challenging. A recent EPA report indicated an increase in the number of homes switching to solid fuels rather than a decline, so households need support in order to transition away from burning coal, peat and wood to heat their homes,” she added.
Air pollutants cause more than seven million premature deaths per year worldwide and more than 1,300 premature deaths in Ireland, mainly due to particulate matter such as PM2.5 which can cause asthma attacks, COPD [Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and lung cancer, added Dr Noone.
EPA monitoring shows that PM2.5 from solid fuels and NO2 levels from traffic are within the current EU legal limits, but these pollutants often exceed stricter World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality guidelines for health.
Earlier this week, the WHO and almost 200 other health associations made an unprecedented call for a global fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. She quoted Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the WHO in that context: “The modern addiction to fossil fuels is not just an act of environmental vandalism. From the health perspective, it is an act of self-sabotage.”
New regulations regarding solid fuels for domestic heating come into effect from October 31st.
“Some of the changes that will apply are fuel products, which are 100 per cent biomass (wood products and wood logs), must have a moisture content of less than 25 per cent and it will not be possible to sell turf via retail, in 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 dependence on burning coal, peat and wood to heat their homes by retrofitting and making homes more energy efficient.” In parallel, people’s dependence on car ownership must be reduced by providing better public transport, safe walking and cycle lanes.
EPA programme manager Pat Byrne said increased burning of solid fuels driven by current and expected increases in gas and electricity prices was likely as “more people may look at solid fuels as a cheaper option”.
This was “a perception” rather than based on its research, he added. The EPA understands people have to heat their homes but advised them to avoid coal, wet wood and peat where possible.
With increasing number of new houses not installing open fires and stoves, overall PM levels nationally have reduced, he said, “but it is a problem at particular times of the year”.
The EPA does not monitor the amount of solid fuel being burned, but other reports have underlined the need for local authorities to be stricter in the enforcement of air quality regulations.