Dublin tackles the health impacts of air pollution

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Article Published 15 Apr 2013 Last modified 21 Mar 2023
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Martin Fitzpatrick is a Principal Environmental Health Officer in the air quality monitoring and noise unit of Dublin City Council, Ireland. He is also the Dublin contact point for a pilot project run by the European Commission DG Environment and the EEA aimed at improving the implementation of air legislation. We asked him how Dublin tackles the health problems linked to poor air quality.

What do you do to improve air quality in Dublin and in Ireland?

We feel that we have been very good on tackling air quality issues in larger towns and cities. One example illustrates this perfectly: the ban on the marketing and sale of bituminous (or smoky) fuel in Dublin in 1990.Medical research colleagues looked at the effects of this decision, and noted that 360 preventable deaths have been avoided in Dublin each year since 1990.

However, medium-sized towns still have poor air quality, and the authorities are now looking at new legislation to tackle this by broadening the ban on the sale of bituminous fuel to small towns as well.

In Ireland, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is the official body that deals with air quality and related areas. Meanwhile the (Irish) Environmental Protection Agency acts as the operational wing of that Department. There are clearly defined responsibilities between the Department and the Agency as to how guidance on relevant policy areas will be passed down to local authority level.

When it comes to health, what kind of challenges does Dublin City Council face? How do you tackle them?

Dublin is a microcosm of other big cities across the European Union. A lot of commonalities exist in terms of the issues needing to be dealt with. Obesity, cancer, and cardiovascular problems are the main public health issues across the EU, including in Ireland.

The Council has recognised that a lot of the work it does is relevant to public health. One example I think worth raising is a project where we brought air quality and public participation together. The project was carried out several years ago in conjunction with the EU’s Joint Research Centre. Called the ‘People Project’, it ran across six European cities and looked at the carcinogenic air pollutant benzene. Following an oversubscribed response for volunteers on a national radio show, we turned people into walking and talking air quality monitors. They wore benzene badges so they could monitor their exposure to benzene in one given day. We then looked at air quality levels and how their daily behaviour had an impact on their health.

All volunteers got feedback on their results. One funny anecdote from this project was the sobering news that if you want to reduce your exposure to the cancer-causing agent polycyclic aromatic carbon, do not fry bacon! One volunteer working on the bacon grill in a local café had really high levels of exposure.

The serious point from this anecdote is that we have to look at the interaction of both indoor and outdoor pollutants in combination.

Can you provide an example of an Irish initiative that worked to improve indoor air quality?

One example clearly stands out — the smoking ban in 2004. Ireland was the first country in the world to ban smoking in workplaces. This ban allowed us to focus on the occupational exposure issue whilst improving air quality.

As an interesting aside to this, one industry that suffered from this ban, which would perhaps have been difficult to predict, was the dry cleaning industry. Their business has contracted since 2004 purely because of the smoking ban. So sometimes you can have impacts you did not foresee.

How does your organisation inform citizens?

Informing citizens is an essential part of our initiatives and day-to-day work. Dublin City Council produces annual reports that provide a summary of air quality for the previous year. These reports are all placed online. Moreover, the (Irish) EPA has an air-monitoring network, which shares information with local authorities and citizens.

Another example, which is unique to Dublin, is a project launched this year called Dublinked, which gathers information held by the Council and puts it into the public domain. This can be data generated by the local authorities, by private companies delivering services in the city, and by residents. In its Communication from 2009, the European Commission notes that the re-use of public sector information has an estimated worth of EUR 27 billion. This is one of the City Council’s initiatives to getting the economy started again.

Along with other European cities, Dublin is involved in a pilot project on air quality. How did Dublin get involved?

Dublin City Council got involved following an invitation from the EEA and the European Commission. We saw the project as an opportunity to share models of good practice and to learn from sharing relevant experiences.

Through the project, we noticed how advanced other cities were in developing emissions inventories, and in having an air quality model for their city. So it has been a spur for Dublin City Council to make progress on those tasks. We then felt that it was not good value for money if just the Council alone looked at an emissions inventory and creating an air quality model. So we sat down with the Irish Environment Protection Agency to look at developing a national model, which could also be used at a regional level. Then we set out to work on that.

Martin FitzpatrickMartin Fitzpatrick, Principal Environmental Health Officer in the air quality monitoring and noise unit of Dublin City Council, Ireland


Air implementation pilot project

The air implementation pilot project gathers cities across Europe to gain a better understanding of cities’ strengths, challenges and needs with respect to the implementation of EU air quality legislation and air quality topics in general. The pilot project is run jointly by the Environment Directorate General of the European Commission and the European Environment Agency. The cities participating in the project include Antwerp, Berlin, Dublin, Madrid, Malmö, Milan, Paris, Ploiesti, Plovdiv, Prague and Vienna. The results of the pilot project will be published later in 2013.

More information

• On Dublin’s air quality
Public information portal