Cloosh valley fire lifts the lid on our air quality myth

Smoke rises from the forest and gorse fire near Seánapheistín. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy
Smoke rises from the forest and gorse fire near Seánapheistín. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy

Country Living with Francis Farragher

Having no sooner consoled myself about the intrinsic benefits of breathing in clean West of Ireland air as compared to what one experiences in the mega-cities like Beijing, my little cocoon of comfort was shattered after doing a story last week concerning the air quality levels in Galway, and in particular the city area.

The Cloosh Valley gorse and forest fire in the Connemara region not far from the villages of Oughterard and Moycullen brought the issue into focus, and especially so on the evening of Tuesday, May 9, when around 4pm the wind changed from an easterly to a westerly direction.  As a consequence, a plume of smoke was blown towards the city as well as a fair bit of ash, prompting a colleague of mine to describe the atmospheric conditions as resembling grey snow.

In the city, there is now a Citizen Science Air Pollution monitoring station, located at the Jes College on Sea Road, that’s part of a pilot projected being driven by the Physics Department of NUI Galway and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

This station measures our air quality and can subsequently feed information into an Air Quality Index, that’s used all over the world to monitor atmospheric pollution levels and to subsequently warn people of any associated health risks.

On that Tuesday evening of May 9 – at the peak of the Cloosh Valley fire – the smoke pollution levels reached 20 times their normal levels at the Galway city monitoring station.

Subsequently, when the fire died down and the winds calmed, the figure subsided dramatically, so maybe we have little to worry about, apart from one-off gorse fire events. Apparently, not so.

For those who love our turf, wood or coal fires, the assertions of Professor Colin O’Dowd, the Director of the Centre for Climate and Air Pollution Studies at NUI Galway, our urban and even rural air quality has been getting worse rather than better over recent years.

He lays the blame primarily on the solid fuel stoves that we all love so much across rural and urban Ireland.  If most people were asked to rate the worst offenders in terms of health damaging emissions from the different solid fuels, they would probably go: 1, coal; 2 peat and 3 wood. Again, apparently not true.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.