The last few days have seen health alerts sent to residents in parts of Northern Ireland due to very high levels of air pollution.
he Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) puts this down to a combination of cold weather leading to increased domestic heating emissions and low winds meaning pollutants are not being dispersed as much as usual.
But air pollution is not just an occasional problem in Northern Ireland; many of us are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution on a persistent basis. The same goes for other parts of the UK.
Just last week England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty focused his annual report on air pollution and the damage it does to our health.
Think of all the other health-related issues we are facing right now and this will give you some idea of how big a health problem air pollution really is.
This is an equally vital issue for Northern Ireland, as recognised by last year’s DAERA consultation on a potential Northern Ireland Clean Air Strategy. But, as for many other major challenges currently facing Northern Ireland, policy progress on clean air has stalled in the continued absence of a functioning Executive.
As we go about our daily lives we are exposed to both outdoor and indoor air pollution, and both are harmful to our health. As Professor Whitty reports, however, we currently know more about outdoor air pollution than indoor air pollution.
Our own research using data for Northern Ireland shows that many others suffer long-term ill health as a result of exposure to air pollution.
Polluted air is not a problem confined to our larger towns and cities. Most of us in Northern Ireland are exposed to outdoor air pollution in excess of the World Health Organisation’s Air Quality Guideline level above which air pollution poses substantial health risks.
This is despite the fact that outdoor air pollution has been slowly falling in Northern Ireland over the last few decades.
Many of us are also likely to be exposed to harmful levels of air pollution indoors, regardless of where we live.
The good news is that dangerously high levels of air pollution in Northern Ireland are not inevitable.
Professor Whitty sets out numerous recommendations covering areas such as transport, planning, industry, agriculture and domestic heating, many of which could be adopted here given sufficient political will.
These build on other recently introduced measures in England such as restrictions on the sale of wet wood for domestic burning and on the sale of the most polluting types of wood stoves.
Only a month ago the Republic of Ireland introduced a ban on the sale of smoky coal, turf and wet wood.
Such restrictions recognise that not all fuels for domestic heating, which accounts for almost half of PM2.5 pollution in Northern Ireland, are equally polluting. For example, solid fuel open fires are more than 500 times as polluting as oil-fired boilers on average. Wood stoves are little better.
Even Ecodesign stoves are more than 60 times as polluting as oil-fired boilers, on average.
Some of these challenges are also opportunities to make real progress on air pollution in Northern Ireland. All the more reason we need our own Clean Air Strategy for Northern Ireland, which unlike the other UK nations, we still do not have in place. Ditto a functioning Executive.
In the meantime, you can also take steps to improve air quality for yourself, your family and your neighbours: by walking or taking public transport instead of driving your car where possible, and by not burning wood or coal in your stove or fireplace if you have an alternative way to heat your home.
If you live in an urban area, already have central heating, and are thinking about putting in a wood-burning stove, maybe think twice.
And contact your local political representatives to ask what they are doing to make our air healthier to breathe.
Professor Duncan McVicar, Dr Neil Rowland (Regional Clean Air Champion for Northern Ireland), Dr Babak Jahanshahi, and Dr Corina Miller from Queen’s Management School, and Elizabeth Nelson from Ulster University are part of Administrative Data Research Northern Ireland, a partnership Queen’s and Ulster University, and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), which is an accredited processor under the Digital Economy Act