Over the last few days, emergency services continue to battle the blazing gorse fire in the Cloosh Valley, Connemara area of County Galway. Apart from the obvious devastating effect on wildlife and the damage to tree crops, the forest fires are causing a major air pollution episode in the area with potential health impacts to the local population. In recent days, the wind diverted the pollution plume away from the most populated areas, however, around 4pm yesterday evening (Tuesday 9 May), a change in wind direction engulfed the city in smoke pollution for a few hours. Such high pollution events can have significant health impacts on sections of the population including the elderly, immunosuppressed and those with chronic conditions such as Asthma.
The smoke pollution event was recorded on a newly deployed ‘Citizen Science Air Pollution’ monitoring network, which engages second-level school students as part of a national air-monitoring network. The Galway City air-monitoring node is located in Coláiste Iognáid at Sea Road in Galway.
The data, which is webcast live every five minutes clearly shows the smoke pollution peak hitting at least 20 times the normal background level. The air quality monitor is comprised of a low-cost particulate matter (PM) detector that streams data live over the 4G network. The measurement systems were built and deployed by the Centre for Climate and Air Pollution Studies at NUI Galway, in a joint initiative with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Institute of Physics (IoP) and selected secondary schools. Currently, the pilot network comprises nodes in secondary schools in Galway, Claremorris, and two in Dublin (Lucan and Sutton). The air pollution caused by the gorse fires was also detected as far west as Carna, at the Centre’s Air Pollution and Climate Monitoring station at Mace Head.
Professor Colin O’Dowd, Director of NUI Galway’s Centre for Climate and Air Pollution Studies and Professor of Physics, said: “Our urban and even rural air quality, all across the country, has been getting worse rather than better over the years, particularly with the increase in biomass domestic fuel consumption associated with the proliferation of wood and peat burning stoves. In contrast to this low-cost Citizen Science network, we also have deployed a highly sophisticated air pollution network nationally, the most sophisticated in the world, which has identified that the burning of domestic biomass fuels causes a disproportionate amount of air pollution for very little heat generation. We have found that it is not uncommon in winter for pollution levels to quite regularly rival the air pollution levels in the most polluted megacities around the world such as Beijing.”
Principal Scientist on the project, Dr. Liz Coleman, also from NUI Galway’s School of Physics and Centre for Climate and Air Pollution Studies, said: “Expansion of air monitoring networks to enhance the regulatory monitoring systems serves two purposes; the first being the added information gained from pollution sources which are not necessarily incorporated into pollution forecast models; and the second, being the engagement of the next generation in air pollution issues and educating our citizens at an early enough age to respect and protect the environment and the air that we breath.”
The European Environment Agency recently updated its assessment for the health impacts of air pollution in the EU, and now estimates that in 2013 there were over 500,000 premature mortalities arising from air pollution in the EU overall, and that 1,500 occurred in Ireland.