Environment, Health and Wellbeing

Our natural environment provides us with the essential services that we need for life, including air, water and food. Any deterioration in the quality of these elements can impact on our health and quality of life, and ultimately on our life expectancy.

Nowadays we are generally living longer than ever before, but environmental pollution continues to be one of the critical factors which impacts on both our life expectancy and our general health and wellbeing. The World Health Organization has estimated that for the EU-28 countries, 13% of deaths in 2012 (~ 630,000 deaths) were attributable to environmental factors. This varies significantly from country to country, but for Ireland the figure is also 13%, equivalent to 53 death annually per 100,000 population.  The main diseases associated with these premature deaths are cancers, heart disease and stroke.

Whilst the impact on our life expectancy is significant, environmental pollution also reduces our quality of life, as living with illnesses such as cancers and heart disease impacts on our wellbeing.  More than 20 million ‘healthy life years’ are estimated to be lost annually in the EU-28 countries as a result of the health impacts of environmental pollution.

Apart from direct influences of pollution on health, such as from air and water pollution, other elements of our environment also play an important role in supporting our health and wellbeing. For example, pollution and climate change can result in biodiversity loss, which can impact on agriculture (reduced pollinators can impact on crop yields).  Climate change is also likely to lead to increased prevalence of flooding which can cause erosion of productive soils and result in the reintroduction into the environment of pollutants which have been trapped in soils and/or in river sediments.

In addition to the overall influence of environmental pollution, health inequity is also an issue across Europe, including in Ireland. People of lower socio-economic status tend to be disproportionately exposed to environmental pollution (such as air or noise pollution), and this may be exacerbated in the future without appropriate policies to protect those most vulnerable in our society.  This area of inequity is a key focus of the ‘European Green Deal’ where the ambition is to implement a just transition to a more sustainable consumption and production model within our society.   

Current Trends

Air Quality and Health

A review of long-term trends in air quality in Europe from 1990 to 2015 indicates that annual median premature deaths in Ireland associated with fine particulate (PM2.5) concentrations have decreased from 3,273 in 1990 to 945 in 2015. Whilst this is a significant improvement, the impacts of air quality on health are still very significant, despite Ireland having a very high compliance level with relevant EU air quality standards.  However, when compared to more stringent air quality guideline values set by the World Health Organization (WHO), levels of air quality at some monitoring stations are above these guideline values for nitrogen dioxide, ozone and fine particulate (PM2.5). 

A recent study by the European Environment Agency has also highlighted social inequity in exposure to air pollution in Europe, with those in lower socioeconomic groups more likely to be exposed to higher levels of air pollution. Further research is needed at a national level to assess the extent of such inequities in Ireland.

Noise Exposure and Health

Recent assessments of the effects of noise highlight the significance of noise as a health concern and not only an annoyance issue. The European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates that long-term exposure to environmental noise causes 12,000 premature deaths and contribute to 48,000 new cases of ischaemic heart disease each year in Europe. The EEA also estimate that 22 million people suffer chronic high annoyance and 6.5 million people suffer chronic high sleep disturbance as a result of noise. Figures for Ireland indicate that around 136,000 people suffer chronic high annoyance and around 32,000 suffer chronic high sleep disturbance. Current EEA forecasts of noise exposure levels to 2030 also indicate that the number of people exposed to high levels of noise in both urban and non-urban areas is likely to increase. 

There is also evidence of social inequity in noise exposure and impact, with those in lower socioeconomic groups more likely to be exposed to noise nuisance.

Climate change and Health

Climate change is a well establish global problem and is perhaps the biggest environmental challenge which we currently face. Whilst efforts are ongoing to mitigate the causes of climate change, substantial efforts are also being invested in climate adaptation, to prepare society for living with the impacts of climate change and reduce the associated risks. There is a wide range of potential health impacts associated with climate change, including:

  • Increased flooding can have direct impact in terms of mortality/injuries and increase the potential for infectious diseases (e.g. through contamination of water supplies). Increased risk of flooding can also cause significant stress for affected populations.
  • Flooding can also increase the risk of erosion, reintroducing pollutants into the environment which have been trapped in soils or in river sediments.
  • Globally, the increased temperatures and melting of polar ice caps may release trapped pollutants such as mercury back into the environment, as well as resulting in increased sea levels and subsequent flooding. Pollutants that may be released, such as mercury, are very persistent and mobile and these releases will result in global increases in pollutant exposure.
  • Increased temperatures and heat waves can also have a devastating effect, particularly on vulnerable populations such as the elderly.
  • Increased sunshine could also result in increased UV radiation exposure, increasing the incidence of skin cancers.
  • Changes in climate will also increase the risk posed by pests and diseases which were not previously present in Ireland, for example infections through water-borne organisms and pathogens such as cholera.
  • Climate change may also increase the risks posed by respiratory diseases with increases in the levels of ambient ozone (an air pollutant which is exacerbated by sunlight). The increased potential for forest fires may also impact on air quality at a local level. 

In addition to physical health impacts, climate change can have profound impacts on psychological wellbeing and mental health. These effects are particularly felt by those living in sensitive areas such as those prone to flooding. However, there is now also a recognised general rise in “eco-anxiety” amongst the general public brought about by a fear in relation to the changes that we can see around us as a result of climate change, and the scale of the threat which we face.  

Chemicals and Health

Our understanding of the impacts of chemicals on our health and wellbeing has increased significantly in recent years. Whilst chemicals play a critical role in supporting modern society, experience over the last 60+ years has demonstrated that chemicals are often used without assessing or understanding the unintentional effects which they can have on our environment and on human health, resulting in intractable and persistent environmental problems which will take many generations to resolve. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1.6 million lives were lost globally in 2016 due to exposure to chemicals. This is based on exposure to a limited subset of chemicals for which the health impacts have been well quantified. At a European scale, it is estimated that annually there are around 0.4 deaths per thousand population attributable to chemical exposure (this specifically excludes the effects of ambient air pollution from combustion sources). This equates to around 2,000 attributable deaths in Ireland per annum.

Apart from premature deaths, chemical exposure can also negatively influence quality of life. For example, in Europe it is estimated that nearly 1.9 million babies are born annually with mercury levels above recommended values, resulting in lifelong effects on learning and brain development.

Although the hazards associated with many individual chemical substances are well established, there is increasing evidence that the adverse effects of combinations of substances is greater than the sum of individual effects. Consequently, the extent of the threats posed by hazardous substances remains largely unknown. This is of particular concern given the increasing trend in global chemical output, with the WHO estimating that chemical production will be four times higher in 2050 compared to 2010.

In Ireland there is now a high level of awareness and concern in relation to the presence of chemicals in everyday products. A 2020 Eurobarometer special report on ‘Attitudes of European citizens Towards the Environment’, identifies that 88% of Irish people are concerned about the impact of chemicals in everyday products on their health and 89% are concerned about the impact on the environment. 77% of Irish citizens also believe that the government is not doing enough to protect the environment, while 67% of citizens believe that citizens themselves are not doing enough to protect the environment.

Biodiversity Loss and Health

Human health is very much reliant on services which are provided by our natural ecosystems, including clean water, clean air, shelter, food and fuels for heating. A 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) highlighted the increasing trends in biodiversity loss with around one million animal and plant species now threatened with extinction. The Chair of IPBES commented that ‘the health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide’. 

Biodiversity loss can have many potential health impacts. For example, food production relies heavily on stable and healthy ecosystems, with 75% of food crops relying on animal pollination in order to produce sufficient quantities of healthy and nutritious foods. Many of our pharmaceutical products are derived or based on natural materials. Over 70% of cancer drugs are natural products or are synthesised to mimic natural products. Loss of biodiversity and species extinction may therefore impact on our access to medical products.

Biodiversity loss can also lead to imbalances in ecosystems and, for example, increase the spread of infectious diseases through increased populations of certain species.

These trends in biodiversity loss need to be addressed in order to protect our ecosystems on which we rely for health and wellbeing.

Access to and use of green space and health

Access to clean and healthy green and blue spaces is associated with better health outcomes including improved mental and physical health and reduced obesity. Recent research in Ireland found that those living in urban areas with low amounts of green space had a higher risk of obesity than those with a medium amount of green space. Interestingly, this research also found that those with large amounts of green space were also at higher risk of obesity, with no clear reason identified for this risk. Potential factors in these findings could be related to the accessibility of these green spaces (e.g. lack of footpaths, security concerns, etc.), however further research is needed.

With increasing trends in urbanisation and more people than ever living in cities, access to good quality green space is important in supporting our health and wellbeing. Between now and 2050, Ireland is projected to have one of the highest rates of urbanisation of any EU Member State, with an annual growth rate of more than 5%. Provision of accessible and suitable high-quality green spaces in these urban areas will be important in delivering a healthy and sustainable lifestyle for these inhabitants. As part of the mental health benefits these spaces can also provide for an increased sense of community and connectedness, with this social cohesion delivering significant societal benefits.

Access to green spaces is also another area where social inequity is a significant issue, with those of lower socioeconomic status tending to have less access to green space in their locality.

Sustainability, individual choices and health

People are becoming more aware of both the positive impacts which a clean environment can have on their health and wellbeing, and the influence that their own individual choices can have on their local environment. Choices such as the fuel we use, how we manage our waste, the chemicals we use in our homes and gardens, household ventilation, the noise we create, etc., demonstrate our values and attitudes to our environment, community, health and wellbeing.

The collaborative public information resource Live Green (www.livegreen.ie) gives advice and tips on how we can take action to make healthier and more sustainable choices. Developing sustainable behaviours and consumption patterns is one of the main ways in which we can create a healthy environment which will help to deliver improved health and wellbeing across the population.

Ireland’s national strategy for sustainability, ‘Our Sustainable Future’, sets out sustainability challenges and how we might address them in order to ensure that our quality of life and general wellbeing can be improved and sustained in the decades to come.

A vibrant, inclusive and engaged community yields better health and environmental outcomes for all the residents, businesses, schools, etc. Sustainability in local communities is a key objective of the Public Participation Networks (PPNs), which aim to enhance public engagement in decision making and policymaking. PPNs are now established in every county and city across Ireland, based on three “pillars”: environment, social inclusion, and community and voluntary.

In 2013, the Government also published the Healthy Ireland Framework, which aims to bring about changes to make Ireland a place where everyone has the opportunity to live a healthy life. This framework is currently being reviewed to ensure it is fit for purpose out to 2030.

Social inequity in exposure to pollution

The trend in social inequity with regard to exposure to environmental stressors is of particular concern and needs to be clearly considered as part of future policy measures. These issues also tend to be exacerbated by the fact that people of lower socioeconomic status can be less resilient to the effects of environmental pollution.  For example, they tend to have less choices about where they live and less ability to move to a different area, while they may also have greater difficulty accessing healthcare (e.g. they may not have private health insurance). Other elements include potentially a lower willingness or ability to complain and/or to engage in local decision-making processes which could impact on their local environment. 

These inequity issues have been recognised as part of the 2019 EU Green Deal, which highlights the need for a just transition to a more sustainable society, leaving no one behind and ensuring that protection is afforded to those most vulnerable in our population.

Cause

Key Pressures on Air Quality

The biggest health risk in relation to air quality is fine particulate matter - PM2.5. One of the biggest sources of national emissions of PM2.5 is from burning of solids fuels for home heating, mainly coal and peat and to a lesser extent wood. The total estimated national emissions of PM2.5 in 2018 was 12.04 kilotonnes, of which 6.32 kilotonnes (i.e. more than 52%) was due to domestic burning of coal, peat and wood. Based on 2018 data, the use of coal, peat and wood for home heating account for only about 15% of home heating energy input, with the largest sources of heating energy being from oil (38%), electricity (25%) and gas (21%). Despite the relatively low contribution to home heating from coal, peat and wood, they account for 99% of direct PM2.5 emissions from home heating and to more than 52% of total national PM2.5 emissions (coal ~ 21.5%, peat ~ 27.2%, wood ~ 3.8%).

Other significant sources of PM2.5 emissions include transport (~ 14%), commercial combustion activities (~ 3%), agriculture (~ 7%) and electricity and heat production (~2%).

The other key pollutant from a health viewpoint is nitrogen oxides (NOx).  Transport accounts for more than 40% of national emissions (in 2018), with other important sources including agriculture (~ 32%), manufacturing industries and construction (~ 9%) and public electricity and heat production (~ 6%).

Pressures on Clean Drinking Water and Health

Safe drinking water is essential to public health, and therefore water must not contain microorganisms and substances at concentrations that could endanger health. Drinking water supplies are therefore required to meet specific legislative standards, the objective of which is to protect human health. The results of the 2019 drinking water monitoring programme for public water supplies show 99.9% compliance with microbiological standards and 99.6% compliance with chemical standards in public drinking water supplies. While this indicates that the majority of public water supplies are safe, further improvements are necessary to improve the security of supplies and avoid long-term Boil Water Notices.

There were 52 supplies on the Remedial Action List (RAL) at the end of 2019, a reduction from 63 supplies at the end of 2018. However, the population affected has increased from 555,689 at the end of 2018 to 1,128,847 at the end of 2019. This increase in population on RAL supplies can mostly be attributed to the Leixlip Water Treatment Plant, which serves over 600,000 people, and was added to the RAL for operational issues in 2019.

The population affected by Boil Water Notices in 2019 was 695,364, a significant increase from 2018, were 97,204 people were impacted. Again, this can mostly be attributed to the Leixlip Water Treatment Plant being placed on two (short-term) boil water notices in 2019. The number of notices issued in 2019 also increased significantly (67 in 2019; 44 in 2018), due to issues with inadequate chlorine contact time requiring notices at 37 supplies. Preventative maintenance is critically important to ensure that infrastructural issues can be identified and addressed at the earliest possible opportunity to prevent Boil Water Notices becoming necessary to ensure protection of public health.

Lead in drinking water continues to be a health concern. Lead is found in drinking water when it dissolves from lead pipework, mains connections and plumbing fittings. Lead is very harmful to the development of the nervous system and can cause long-term health damage, however, there continues to be a lack of urgency in addressing the removal of lead from our networks and buildings. To date, Irish Water has replaced only 17% of service connections and backyard connections. Irish Water should ensure that all public side lead connections are replaced by 2026, as previously set out in the published Lead in Drinking Water Mitigation Plan and publicly communicated to consumers. Building owners should also assess their properties and remove any private side lead to protect people in their homes and workplaces.

As well as public water supplies, a significant fraction of the population (~ 20%) obtain water from private water supplies including group schemes, small private supplies and individual wells. Larger private supplies are required to monitor the quality of the water being supplied, with available data indicating that the quality of water from private supplies is not as good as that from public supplies. In addition, around 16% of registered water supplies were not monitored at all in 2018.

Household wells and group schemes serving <50 people or providing < 10,000 litres per day which are not supplying any public/commercial activity, are not covered by the drinking water regulations and therefore are not required to be monitored. In these cases it is the responsibility of the householder themselves to ensure that the water is fit for purpose. Because of this there is very little information on the quality of the water in these supplies, but it is estimated that between 15% and 30% of all wells are contaminated by E.coli and that around two-thirds of wells could be at risk of contamination.

There are an estimated 500,000 domestic waste water treatment systems (DWWTS), i.e. septic tanks and treatment systems, in Ireland treating waste water from houses not connected to a public sewer system. Household septic tanks can threaten both public health (e.g. drinking water) and water quality (rivers, lakes, groundwater quality) if they are poorly constructed or fail to operate satisfactorily.

There is also a particularly dangerous form of E. coli called VTEC (Verocytotoxigenic E. coli). This can arise from contamination of a water supply by cattle slurry. Ireland has the highest incidence of VTEC infection in Europe, with 10 times the European average in 2017. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) has reported an increasing number of cases of VTEC infection in Ireland, with 1,122 cases in 2018 compared to 283 in 2011. Research has demonstrated that incidence of VTEC infection in Ireland is particularly associated with rural areas, with significant associations between cattle density as well as unregulated household wells.

The increased frequency of extreme weather events can also cause problems in both public and private water supplies. Flooding can present particular risks, with contaminants being washed into water supply systems, while drought conditions also present a concern. It is important that water supplies are enhanced to increase resilience to these events.

Note: 2019 information will be available once the Focus on Private Water Supplies report is published later in 2020.

Pressures on the quality of our Rivers, Lakes and Soils

The latest EPA water quality in Ireland report indicates that there are significant challenges in improving the quality of our surface waters (i.e. coastal waters, rivers, lakes and estuaries) as assessed under the Water Framework Directive. This impacts on the broader ecosystems and affects the ability of our environment to support a healthy population.

The report finds that 52.8% of surface water bodies assessed are in satisfactory ecological health, being categorised as either in good or high ecological status. The remaining 47.2% of surface water bodies are in moderate, poor, or bad ecological status. This compares with 55.4% at satisfactory status for the last assessment period of 2010 – 2015, a decrease of 2.6%. Nearly all the negative trends are driven by changes in river water quality. The substantial increase in the number of river water bodies in poor status, which has increased by a third (or 110 water bodies) since 2007-2009 is evidence that river water quality is getting worse.

The main pressures impacting water quality in Ireland include agriculture, waste water discharges, impacts to the physical habitat conditions including excess fine sediment (hydromorphology), and pressures from forestry activities. Pollution from agriculture and waste water are a particular issue, resulting in nutrient pollution which causes excessive plant growth and algal blooms, while pollution from herbicides and pesticide use is also impacting on water quality in some areas. The ongoing deterioration of our water bodies is a worrying trend and is an area where urgent and consolidated action is required.

In addition to the ecological status of our water bodies, the Water Framework Directive also requires assessment of their chemical status. Only 25% of our surface waters failed to achieve good chemical status, with failures being related to a small number of persistent chemicals. The limits for these chemicals are specified in order to protect the most sensitive aquatic organisms and also those higher up the food chain (including humans). The chemicals identified as being of concern include mercury, heptachlor and heptachlor epoxide (insecticides), poly brominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) (flame retardants used in many manufactured goods) and benzo(a)pyrene, which is a polyaromatic hydrocarbon (PAH).

The management of sludges from waste water treatment plants is also an area which could present a risk to the quality of agricultural soils, with 99% of municipal waste water sludges being reused in soil / agriculture. The European sewage sludge directive encourages the reuse of sewage sludges in agriculture in order to benefit from the nutrients present in the sludge. However, in order to safeguard the quality of the receiving soil, the directive applies environmental standards for several parameters, namely a number of heavy metals. Other European countries have also introduced national limits for other pollutants of concern in sludges, however in Ireland only the limits for heavy metals currently apply. An EPA-funded research project examined the potential health and water quality impacts of application of sludge residues (referred to as ‘biosolids’) to agricultural land. This concluded that ‘a matter of concern is that unlegislated metals and PPCPs (pharmaceutical and personal care products), which were found to be present in biosolids originating from a selection of the WWTPs examined in this study, may be inadvertently applied to land. With multiple applications over several years, these may build up in the soil and may enter the food chain; this gives rise to concerns over the continued application of biosolids to land in Ireland’. This is an area where further research is needed to ensure that the nutrient value in sludges can be sustainably exploited while preventing any associated impacts on soils and subsequently on human health.

Note: 2019 information will be available once the Focus on Private Water Supplies report is published later in 2020.

Contributors to noise in our environment

The most recent assessment carried out under the Environment Noise Directive (END) indicates that road transport noise is by far the most significant contributor to annoyance and sleep disturbance in Ireland, while rail and air travel also contribute, but to a much lesser extent. The END assesses noise from a relatively strategic viewpoint, and the assessment is based on modelling of noise levels.

The strategic noise map generated by the END is designed to assess noise exposure in a given area, resulting from particular noise sources for major roads (>3 million vehicle movements/annum), major rail (>30,000 rail passages), major airports (>50,000 air movements/annum), & agglomerations (Dublin and Cork >100,000 inhabitants). The END data does not consider, for example, local noise nuisance issues related to noisy pubs/shops, neighbourhood and neighbour-neighbour noise issues. Local authorities have a role in dealing with these local noise issues and the most recent data (from 2018) indicates that local authorities received more than 2,000 noise complaints annually. More than 55% of these complaints were to the four Dublin local authorities (with 27% alone to Dublin City Council), indicating the pressures on the noise environment in urban areas.

The European statistics agency, Eurostat, also publish data on the percentage of European populations reporting impact due to noise from neighbours or from the street. This data indicates that Ireland is one of the least affected countries, with around 9.4% of people reporting some level of impact, compared to countries at the higher end of the scale where more than 25% of the population are reporting that they are being impacted (Germany, Netherlands, Malta).

Status of Bathing Waters in Ireland

The EPA report, Bathing Water Quality in Ireland 2019 has found that the overall quality of Ireland's bathing water remains high with 140 of 147 identified bathing waters meeting or exceeding the minimum required EU standards. These provide a high level of protection for bathers.  Nearly three quarters of bathing waters were classified as Excellent with 107 bathing waters meeting the standard - up four from 2018.  However, five bathing waters failed to meet the minimum standard and are classified as Poor.  Members of the public can find out about bathing water quality on the EPA's Beaches.ie website (www.beaches.ie), or on bathing water notice boards at the beaches.

Status of Radioactivity in Ireland

Levels of radioactivity in the Irish environment have been routinely monitored since 1982. In 2015, EPA reported on comprehensive measurements of radioactivity in air, drinking water, marine environmental samples and a range of foods. The data confirmed that the levels of artificial radionuclides in the Irish environment are low and do not pose a significant risk to the health of the Irish population.

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas formed in the ground by the radioactive decay of uranium, which is present in all rocks and soils. Radon is diluted to very low concentrations outdoors, however, it can build up to high concentrations inside buildings. Exposure to radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in Ireland and is linked to the development of 300 cases of lung cancer each year. High radon concentrations can be found in any part of the country; however, the EPA has identified certain areas which are more prone to radon as High Radon Areas. The EPA regularly runs local awareness campaigns in High Radon Areas in order to raise awareness of the risks from radon and to encourage homeowners to test their homes.

The Irish building regulations also require measures to be taken to reduce the impacts of indoor radon levels. Implementation of the Irish building regulations relating to radon prevention is estimated to have resulted in a 13% reduction in average radon concentrations in Irish homes, with a 26% reduction demonstrated in High Radon Areas (2015 data compared to 2002 data).

Climate Change, Health and Wellbeing

In Europe, the impacts of climate change on human health and wellbeing include flooding, extreme temperatures, air pollution, vector-borne disease and waterborne and food-borne diseases. Climate change is likely to alter risks to public health and wellbeing in Ireland. The key climate change-related exposures of importance to human health are likely to be increases in heatwave-related health impacts, decreases in cold-related health impacts, increases in flood-related health impacts, and an increase in the frequency of respiratory diseases due to changes in pollen and pollutant distributions, and also potentially due to the occurrence of forest fires.

Pharmaceuticals and Chemicals in the Environment

Widespread and excessive use, overuse and misuse of antimicrobial agents, particularly antibiotics, has significantly contributed to the development and spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) worldwide. AMR occurs when microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi develop the ability to resist the action of the drugs (antimicrobials such as antibiotics, antifungals, etc.) designed to combat them and are capable of multiplying in its presence. It is unfortunately commonplace that antimicrobials which were relied on and effective 20 years ago, are now failing. It is estimated that AMR results in 33,000 deaths annually in Europe, plus related costs, resulting from healthcare expenses and productivity losses, of over €1.5 billion. In 2017 the EU Commission adopted the EU One Health Action Plan against AMR, while Irelands National Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance (iNAP) was also published in 2017.

The presence of persistent manmade chemicals in the environment is also a significant issue which will impact on the environment and human health for many generations. Chemicals can be introduced to the environments at many points throughout the lifecycle of the chemical including during manufacturing of the chemicals, in industrial processes where it is used (for example in waste water or air emissions), during use of products which contain chemicals (e.g. detergents) and during disposal or recovery of materials. Whilst individual chemicals can result in environmental and health effects, there is also particular concern about the potential synergistic impacts from mixtures of chemicals, the impacts of which are largely unknown at present. Many of these chemicals were (or are still) used in processes and products without initially understanding the detrimental unintended effects which these chemicals can subsequently have on the environment. This legacy of inadequate chemicals management is now a substantial environmental and human health issue which will likely take generations to address.

Whats Being Done

Regulation and Policy

Within Ireland, environment and health is an area of growing public interest and involves many organisations from both health and environmental perspectives. Under its environmental protection mandate, the EPA delivers direct and indirect benefits to human health through controlling harmful substances, as well as emissions from licensed facilities; maintaining a supervisory function with regard to the provision of safe and secure drinking water; bathing water reporting; research; and monitoring of the quality of our environment, including surface and ground waters, ecosystem quality and ambient air quality.

The EPA’s Health Advisory Committee brings representatives from public health authorities together to advise the EPA on carrying out its functions in the context of health protection. The concept of health assessment has also been established as a component of Environmental Impact Assessment. Through this process, the potential health effects of a development on the local population are considered – in terms of both positive and negative impacts. Such assessments combine evidence from research and monitoring with independent expert opinion to provide a clear understanding of potential direct and indirect health impacts, and to identify adjustments to mitigate future problems.

At a European level the key driver of policy is sustainability, with respect to societal, economic and environmental aspects. The EU Green Deal, the cornerstone of the incoming European Commission’s agenda, sets out a number of clear ambitions to deliver a green transition, with sustainability as the core element across all policy areas. The Green Deal will also be supported by the 8th Environment Action Programme (EAP) which is due to be published in 2020 and will set the ambition level of Europe out to 2030. One of the elements of the Green Deal/Action plan is a ‘zero pollution ambition’ in order to protect citizens health, and this will include specific action plans and strategies for clean water, clean air, sustainable use of chemicals and further limiting industrial emissions. The other elements of the Green Deal and 8th EAP will also very much support the provision of a healthy environment, delivering elements such as protection and restoration of nature, sustainable food, circular economy, limiting climate change impacts and a just transition fund to support those regions and people that are potentially adversely affected by the green transition (for example, where there is high employment related to fossil fuel extraction).

Healthy Food

From an environmental and human health point of view the concept of “healthy food” is largely concerned with ensuring that foods are free from contamination associated with chemical or biological pollution. A healthy, safe and clean environment is critical to ensuring the production of safe, healthy and sustainable foods. Careful regulation is necessary to ensure that food-growing areas are not adversely impacted by, for example, poorly treated waste water, air pollution, landspread wastes, and badly managed farm chemicals. Care is also required around the reintroduction of by-products into the food chain to avoid unintended contamination. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland is the main body responsible for implementing food safety legislation in Ireland, however there are obviously many synergies between food safety and environment, with the provision of a clean environment being critical to the provision of healthy food.

EPA Research Programme

Under its EPA Research Programme 2014-2020, the EPA provides funding for a diverse number of research projects which aim to generate data, improve understanding and address national level issues related to Environment, Health and Wellbeing.

Between 2016-2019, the EPA funded c. 68 new projects relevant to the Environment, Health and Wellbeing area mostly under its Sustainability Pillar (Health & Wellbeing Theme), Water Pillar (Safe Water Theme) and Climate Pillar (Air Quality Theme), corresponding to a commitment of over €9.5 million.  

Some of the ongoing research funded by the EPA investigates:

  • Risk to public health from exposure to environmental noise arising from transportation sources. 

  • Human health and wellbeing impacts of extreme weather events and climate change in the Republic of Ireland.

  • Impacts of the air pollutant nitrogen dioxide on health, with a particular focus on those with an underlying respiratory conditions who are more vulnerable.

  • Environmental occurrence and spatiotemporal human health risks associated with VTEC and Cryptosporidiosis.

  • Health benefits from engagement with our green and blue spaces and mechanisms and tools to help develop health-promoting environments.

  • Health and wellbeing benefits of a clean and healthy environment and environmental amenities in Ireland.

  • The health and well-being benefits of being a citizen scientist.

  • Key sources, hotspots and drivers of AMR in the environment from various sectors to provide evidence around the extent of contamination of the environment with AMR organisms.

  • The public health impacts of exposure to AMR organisms in recreational waters. 

  • The behaviour and risks of pesticides in the environment and development of a low-cost method for their remediation.

  • Potential Sources and environmental fates of certain phthalates.

  • Effect-based monitoring for pharmaceuticals in Irish surface waters.

  • Levels and pathways of human exposure in Ireland to persistent organic pollutants.

Details of the latest EPA Funding Research Opportunities and Awards are available from here.

 

Outlook

Ireland’s environment is of good quality, and our citizens have a generally clean and safe environment to live in. The availability of green spaces (parks, woods, countryside) and blue spaces (ponds, riverbanks, lake shores and seashores), along with clean, fresh air and breath-taking landscapes, provides an enviable resource which should be shared, valued, protected and enjoyed.

In common with countries across Europe, key high-level environment and health issues include climate change, antimicrobial resistance, chemical pollution and air quality. In addition, there are a number of national issues that require action, such as health impacts associated with localised air pollution due to solid fuel burning, ongoing reductions in the quality of our rivers and lakes due to a range of pressures including waste water treatment and agriculture and drinking water contamination related to VTEC (Verocytotoxigenic E. coli).

Some of the key challenges facing Ireland are: on-site waste water treatment systems (such as septic tanks) and urban waste water discharges impacting on water quality and amenities; urban air quality in cities and towns; nuisance and amenity impact from noise; and radon in homes.

What is clear from international studies is that a clean, protected and accessible environment contributes significantly to the status of our health and quality of life, to reducing healthcare costs, and to the successful delivery of national public health policy. Accordingly, Ireland must put in place the necessary measures to ensure that our natural environment is protected and enhanced so that we can derive the associated wellbeing and life expectancy benefits.

References
Current Trends Section References

ETC/ACM et al., 2018, Long-term air quality trends in Europe – fine particulate matter (PM2.5) health impacts, ETC/ACM Technical Paper No 2017/4, European Topic Centre on Air Pollution and Climate Change Mitigation.

EPA, 2019, Air quality in Ireland 2018, Environmental Protection Agency, Wexford. 

EEA, 2018, Unequal exposure and unequal impacts: social vulnerability to air pollution, noise and extreme temperatures in Europe,

EEA Report No 22/2018, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

EEA, 2020, Environmental Noise in Europe – 2020, EEA Report No 22/2019, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

WHO, 2016, The public health impact of chemicals: knowns and unknowns, World Health Organization, Geneva.

Bellanger, M. et al., 2013, Economic benefits of methylmercury exposure control in Europe: Monetary value of neurotoxicity prevention, Environ Health 12, 3 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1186/1476-069X-12-3.

WHO Fact Sheet on Biodiversity and Health: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/biodiversity-and-health

IPBES, 2019, The global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystems services, Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

IPBES Media Release: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’: https://ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment

Carlin, C. et al., 2016, Health Benefits from biodiversity and green infrastructure, EPA Research Report No. 195.
Dempsey, S., Lyons, S. and Nolan, A., 2018, Urban green space and obesity in older adults, ESRI. https://www.esri.ie/system/files?file=media/file-uploads/2018-04/RB201810.pdf 

Kilgarriff, P., 2019, Greening the Future: Policy Options for Greener Cities.    https://www.iiea.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Greening-the-Future-Policy-Options-for-Greener-Cities.pdf

Cause Section References

EPA, 2017, Focus on private water supplies, Environmental Protection Agency, Wexford.

Óhaiseadha C, Hynds P.D., Fallon U.B., O'Dwyer J.,2017, A geostatistical investigation of agricultural and infrastructural risk factors associated with primary verotoxigenic E. coli (VTEC) infection in the Republic of Ireland, 2008-2013. Epidemiol Infect., 145(1):95‐105.

Irish Water, 2016,  National Wastewater Sludge Management Plan, https://www.water.ie/projects-plans/our-plans/wastewater-sludge-management/Final-NWSMP.pdf.

Eurostat, 2020, Noise from neighbours or from the street - EU-SILC survey, http://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/show.do?dataset=ilc_mddw01&lang=en.

EU Commission, EU Action on Antimicrobial Resistance, https://ec.europa.eu/health/amr/antimicrobial-resistance_en.

Department of Health, 2017, Irelands National Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance (iNAP), https://assets.gov.ie/9519/afcba9bce7c54bf9bcbe9a74f49fdaf2.pdf.