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Respiratory Health 2019

Air pollution requires urgent and concerted action in Ireland

iStock / Getty Images Plus / Saklakova

Sarah O’Connor

CEO, The Asthma Society of Ireland

Air pollution is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for around seven million premature deaths each year.

In 2016, air pollution was responsible for an estimated 1,180 early deaths in Ireland. Air pollution is considered by the World Health Organization to be as harmful to an individual as smoking. It is linked to heart disease, strokes, lung cancer, and respiratory illness and infection. Similarly, according to the same organisation, nine out of ten of us breathe air containing high levels of pollutants.

What is air pollution?

Air pollution is caused by the excessive presence of tiny particles in the air. These particles are hazardous to human health and the environment. Because of this, it can be naturally occurring, like pollen, or man-made, like soot or smoke. The particles are sometimes so minuscule they are invisible to the naked eye.

The main sources of harmful air pollution are smoky fuels, transport vehicles, agricultural activities, factory emissions and cleaning products. Subsequently air pollution is carried in the air outside and indoors, into our bodies. It causes greatest harm to the most vulnerable in our society; to children, the elderly, people who are homeless or living in substandard accommodation and those with chronic illness like asthma.

Air pollution

Why is the Asthma Society interested in air pollution?

Air pollution is a critical public health issue that requires urgent and concerted action. In Ireland, 380,000 people have asthma and almost 900,000 will have asthma at some point in their lifetime. For people with asthma, some triggers that worsen their symptoms – such as pet dander and mould – can be avoided. However, air pollution cannot. It requires the government to act as leaders to protect us from this serious harm. They must build awareness so that we can each take steps to safeguard ourselves, our families and our communities.

What are the benefits of tackling air pollution?

Each and every one of us will benefit from any long-term improvements to air pollution, but children in particular will benefit as they are most impacted by it. Children have faster breathing rates and their lungs are still developing. Research shows that children who breathe polluted air can have life-long reduced lung capacity, they may develop asthma and their neurological development could be affected. 

A global study published in April this year reviewed the occurrence of asthma in children caused by traffic pollution in 194 countries around the world. Through this, it identified that 1,700 new cases of the disease in Ireland a year were as a consequence of pollutants emitted from vehicles. That is 1,700 children who will have to take medication daily, might be limited in how they play or exercise and will know how it feels to struggle to breathe.

How do we tackle air pollution?

Both the government and the public will play an important role in reducing air pollution. We can all make changes in our own lives that will help make the air we breathe cleaner. Instead of driving to work, we can instead choose to walk when possible. We can also choose to buy our food from local sources to ensure the products we consume have caused less pollution.

However, our government needs to take the lead and act now on air pollution by publishing its long-overdue national Clean Air Strategy.

In conclusion, this strategy urgently needs to lay out an ambitious set of steps to achieve dramatic improvements to our air quality. A government-led public awareness campaign is desperately needed. As a result, this will fully inform the Irish public about the effects of air pollution and to better equip them with the knowledge to tackle it.

In a 2019 survey, nine out of ten people who used our advice line felt better equipped in managing their asthma and/or COPD. Call free on 1800 44 54 64 to speak to a respiratory specialist nurse.

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