Data, Air Pollution and Health in Northern Ireland…

Air pollution has become much more widely recognised as a public health issue in recent years. In 2020 a London coroner ruled that air pollution was a contributing factor in the 2013 death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, citing a failure to reduce air pollution to legal limits. With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the impact of air pollution on health has been called further into question.

As researchers we were keen to understand how exposure to air pollution might impact health across the life course in Northern Ireland. By linking together large-scale datasets across time and space through the Administrative Data Research Centre Northern Ireland (ADRC NI), we are able to present a picture of air pollution levels in Northern Ireland, as a first step towards this goal.

First the good news: Outdoor air pollution has been falling in Northern Ireland, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, for most of the last 17 years. A new air pollution dashboard, launching on 10 November 2021, shows this clearly for two pollutants of particular concern for health: particulate matter with a maximum diameter of 2.5 microns (PM2.5), and Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2).

The Northern Ireland Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) has also been consulting on a new Clean Air Strategy for Northern Ireland, although things seem to have gone a bit quiet on that front since the consultation closed in February 2021.

Now the bad news: The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that outdoor air pollution causes 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide per year. These deaths occur disproportionately in poorer countries. But research suggests that even in Northern Ireland hundreds of people every year die prematurely because of outdoor air pollution. Others will suffer long-term ill health, or see existing health conditions worsen, as a result of exposure to air pollution, both outdoor and indoor.

The bad news doesn’t stop there. The WHO recently updated its Air Quality Guidelines – annual thresholds for outdoor air pollution that if exceeded pose substantial health risks – for both PM2.5 and NO2. Even after years of generally falling pollution levels, our research suggests that 87% of people in Northern Ireland lived in an area where PM2.5 pollution exceeded this level, and 37% lived in an area where NO2 pollution exceeded this level, in 2016. These numbers will have fallen a little since 2016, but many of us will still be exposed to pollution levels well above these thresholds. From the 10 November onwards, you will be able to check the Northern Ireland air pollution dashboard to see how your own local area fits into this wider picture.

Better Data for Cleaner Air: These issues will be discussed at a forthcoming public online event running on 10 November 2021 as part of this year’s ESRC Festival of Social Science, hosted by the Administrative Data Research Centre Northern Ireland. Join us to hear about pollution data for Northern Ireland, to see the new air pollution dashboard in action, to see recent research on the health effects of air pollution in Northern Ireland, and to hear from voluntary sector and political representatives about why this really matters and what they’re doing about it.

Dangerously high levels of outdoor air pollution in Northern Ireland are not inevitable. The better the information we have on air pollution and its impacts, the better informed policy makers can be in reaching air pollution policy decisions at this crucial time, and the better able we will all be to hold our elected representatives to account for those decisions.

The online event is Wednesday the 10th of November at 11am. Book your tickets here…

Acknowledgements

The help provided by the staff of the Northern Ireland Longitudinal Study (NILS) and the NILS Research Support Unit is acknowledged. The NILS is funded by the Health and Social Care Research and Development Division of the Public Health Agency (HSC R&D Division) and NISRA. The NILS-RSU is funded by the ESRC and the Northern Ireland Government. The authors alone are responsible for the interpretation of the data and any views or opinions presented are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of NISRA/NILS.