Introduction to air pollution
The air pollution we find in our atmosphere mostly comes from combustion activities – that is to say, when we burn fuels. The two most important examples of this in Northern Ireland are road vehicles (exhaust emissions) and households (when we burn solid fuel like coal, wood and peat).
Air pollution is known to have harmful effects on human health, and on the health of ecosystems and the environment.
The main air pollutants of concern are listed below:
- particulate matter, PM – this can be classified as either PM10 (particles less than 10 micrometres in diameter), or PM2.5 (particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter). PM, when breathed in, can penetrate deep into the lungs, where it can have negative effects, such as causing inflammation. The main sources of PM that we find in the air in our towns and cities comes from road traffic, and from households burning solid fuel.
- nitrogen dioxide, NO2 – this is one of the oxides of nitrogen (the other is nitrogen monoxide, NO). It is known to have harmful effects on human health. The main source of NO2 in our towns and cities is vehicle exhaust emissions.
- sulphur dioxide, SO2 – a sharp, penetrating gas, which is particularly bad for people with respiratory conditions like asthma. Levels of this pollutant have decreased greatly in recent years due to controls on the amount of sulphur which is permitted in fuels sold here.
- ozone, O3 – ozone is a gas which is needed in the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) to protect us from ultraviolet radiation. However, O3 is a very reactive substance. When it occurs at ground level, it can damage vegetation and crops and act as a severe irritant when inhaled. Levels of O3 measured here vary from year to year, since it can be transported long distances on the wind from other countries.
Air pollution and health
Air pollution is harmful to our health. This is why it is important that we monitor our air quality and take steps to improve it. The air quality website has information on past and current levels of air pollution at monitoring stations in Northern Ireland.
Air quality NI website
The air quality website, "Northern Ireland Air" provides a one stop shop resource for information covering all aspects of air pollution in Northern Ireland.
The site provides information on:
- latest up-to-date air quality levels across Northern Ireland
- reports and analysis of trends and historical data
- information on both national air quality policy and the work of Northern Ireland’s district councils
- descriptions of what causes air pollution, how it is measured, and relevant health, amenity and ecosystem impacts
The site is an interactive map showing where Northern Ireland’s automatic monitoring stations are located. By clicking on the map, you can view details of each monitoring site and current levels of the pollutants monitored.
You can find more information about the health effects of air pollution on the NI Direct website.
Reducing air pollution
It is well known that air pollution can have serious negative effects on our health. Air pollution most often comes as a side-effect of producing energy for heating or transport.
It takes energy to produce food, treat our drinking water, manufacture the things we use, heat our homes and workplaces, and transport us to the places we need to go. Most of this energy comes from the burning of fuels – producing CO2 (which contributes to climate change) and usually some air pollutants (such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter).
Therefore, the choices we make about how we travel, how we heat our homes, and the things we buy and use can all help to make a difference to air quality. If we can use less energy, and avoid wasting it, this will avoid releasing unnecessary pollution into the air. It will also save us money.
Here are some things we can all do:
- make sure your home is well insulated and that the boiler is well-maintained. In most UK homes, the central heating system accounts for the highest percentage of energy used. Under the affordable warmth grant scheme you may be able to receive energy advice and help to make sure your home is well insulated.
- stay warm, but don’t overheat your home. 21°C is comfortable for most people.
- avoid wasting food – it takes energy to produce. There is plenty of useful advice on the Love Food Hate Waste website.
- try to drive less. Walk or cycle if possible, or use public transport – especially for short journeys. The NIDirect website Travelwise NI provides advice and information on more sustainable transport options including walking, cycling, car sharing and public transport, for commuters, schools and employers. Travelwise NI will help you to understand the health and environmental benefits and cost savings of cycling, and you can find out about the Cycle to Work Scheme. You can find more information on cycling at CycleNI
- if you live in a Smoke Control Area, then there are only certain types of fuels or appliances that you may use to heat your home. If you are unsure if you live in a Smoke Control Area, or you would like more advice on permitted fuels and appliances, please contact your local council.
You can find lots more energy saving advice on the Energy Wise pages on the NIDirect website.
Air Pollution Research
Under the auspices of the North South Ministerial Council, the Department has been working with colleagues in Ireland to examine the issue of air pollution from the residential heating sector. The Council commissioned a report called the Residential Solid Fuel and Air Pollution Study.
The purpose of smoke control legislation is to maintain good air quality and to limit smoke pollution.
Smoke control areas
District councils may declare all or part of their district a smoke control area, in order to restrict the amount of smoke emitted from chimneys in the area.
You can find out if you live in a smoke control area of Northern Ireland on the Smoke control areas section of the Air Quality NI web-site.
In smoke control areas, residents are required to use "authorised"1 smokeless fuels or install an "exempted fireplace"2.
1 authorised fuels: fuels that are tested to make sure that they produce very little smoke and may be burned in open fireplaces in smoke control areas.
2exempted fireplaces - these are appliances such as stoves, heaters or boilers which have been tested to ensure that they produce only limited amounts of smoke when burning prescribed fuels other than authorised fuels. They can be used in smoke control areas.
Is my fireplace exempted? Is my fuel authorised?
The list of authorised fuels for Northern Ireland shows all permitted authorised fuels.
The list of exempted fireplaces for Northern Ireland also shows all currently exempted fireplaces.
Please note that there are conditions and specifications that need to be adhered to for each type of authorised fuel.
All exempted fireplaces must also be installed, maintained and operated in accordance with the manufacturer’s listed specifications. Only authorised fuels or fuels officially listed as permitted for each appliance may be used in any exempted fireplace.
For further details on these specifications and requirements, please feel free to contact the Air and Environmental Quality team (contact details below).
Further information on smoke control
You can also visit the Air Quality Northern Ireland web-site for further information on smoke control.
If you would like any further information please contact: