BusConnects Air-Quality Data Suggests High Levels of Pollution in Phibsboro

At Doyle’s Corner in Phibsboro, it feels like there is no escape from air pollution, says Anne Bedos.

“You can smell the air, you can feel the air,” she says, standing on the pavement outside Loretta’s restaurant, her arms crossed. Traffic rushes over the junction.

She’s moved her bedroom to the back of her house so it doesn’t front onto Phibsborough Road, she says. She keeps the windows closed.

When she looked for live data to try to explain the thick air in the neighbourhood, there wasn’t much to find. Just figures from Environmental Protection Agency monitoring stations further afield, she says.

Data published by the National Transport Authority does show hourly levels of air pollution along the route higher than those set out under EU air-quality limits.

However, air-quality experts say that because of how the data was collected, it doesn’t mean these stats necessarily show a breach.

It does, though, signal a need for further monitoring and for more urgency to prevent air pollution, they say.

Debbi Stanistreet, an associate professor of population health at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI), says the NTA assessment, done as part of BusConnects, warrants further investigation.

“People walking on pavements close to the road would be exposed to levels higher than those monitors that are situated further away,” says Stanistreet.

She’s concerned about the health effects for people close to air-pollution hotspots, she says, particularly for those with underlying health conditions.

“If you’re an asthmatic person living in the city, going to the supermarket can become a risky activity,” she says.

What Data?

Under the EU Air Quality Directive, countries have to limit air pollution to below 40 μg/m3 of nitrogen dioxide an hour on average over the course of a year, among other thresholds. (It also addresses other kinds of pollutants.)

A monitoring station on St John’s Road West in Kilmainham averaged higher than that in 2019, hitting 43 μg/m3. The breach forced the four Dublin councils to draw up a joint air-quality plan.

This 2021 plan outlined 14 measures that cover traffic management, making it less attractive for people to own cars, and encouraging pedestrianisation and cycling projects.

Four new national stations are planned for Lucan, on Amiens Street, in Baldoyle and Balbriggan early next year, as well as seven more stations around the country, said a spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is responsible for measuring air quality, on Tuesday.

In October, the European Commission proposed halving the legal threshold in the EU Air Quality Directive for nitrogen dioxide from 40 μg/m3 to 20 μg/m3 an hour over the course of a year.

This would bring the limit closer to what the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends, which is 10μg/m3 an hour on average annually of nitrogen dioxide.

In 2019, 99 percent of the world’s population was living in places where the WHO air quality guidelines levels were not met, says the WHO website.

How It’s Measured

Data published in an air-quality report by the National Transport Authority, as part of their environmental-impact assessment for BusConnects, the city’s bus network redesign, modelled the hourly levels of nitrogen dioxide along Phibsboro Road at 40.7 μg/m3, while the junction at Inn’s Quay and Church Street was down as 60 μg/m3.

Nitrogen dioxide emissions are more than likely from exhaust pipes on vehicles, rather than smoke from chimneys or other sources, says John Gallagher, an air-quality expert at Trinity College Dublin.

To comply with the EU Air Quality Directive, the EPA has to measure what’s known as “annual population exposure”.

Monitoring stations for that have to be situated far from a road in order to get an even accurate reading of average air-quality levels, said Gallagher.

In the BusConnects air-quality assessment, the study used diffusion-tube sampling, at points along the road, and detailed air-dispersion modelling, which are estimations of air quality.

“The study found that there were potential exceedances of the ambient air quality limit values for NO2 close to busy city centre road junctions,” says the assessment.

A spokesperson for the EPA said on Tuesday that it has repeatedly raised concerns regarding levels of nitrogen dioxide in Dublin.

In 2019, it published indicators for nitrogen dioxide in Dublin done through modelling and indicative monitoring.

“In particular places in Dublin, NO2 levels were high, suggesting they may be over the EU limit,” they said, citing areas like city centre streets, the M50 motorway and the entrance and exit of the Dublin Port Tunnel.

Gallagher says that the NTA’s method of measuring has its limits.

“You could go at the wrong time of the day,” he says. It could be windy, or off peak with fewer cars, and look like the pollution isn’t so bad one day or is worse another day.

“As with all modelling, this is indicative only,” said a spokesperson for the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications on Tuesday. “We take all information made available to us into consideration as we continue to work with our colleagues and key stakeholders to develop policies to improve air quality.”

But Gallagher says the data is still useful for people to understand how bad the air pollution is in their local area.

“This could be the time that the person with the health impact passes. You’re getting people to understand where to be wary about, what areas of the city are bad,” he said.

John Gallagher explains an air pollution graph. Photo by Claudia Dalby.

Bedos, who owns the cycling shop Rothar, says seeing the figures in the modelling worried her because it felt like the first time she actually saw how bad the pollution looked in the area.

“The modelling is showing that there might be a situation where everything is highly polluted, like Dorset Street, but we don’t know,” says Bedos.

She says it seems strange to base policy off an average, when it might not reflect how badly people are being affected by air pollution.

It’s probable that air pollution is worse when everyone is on their way to schools, and the kids are all out on the streets, she says. But after the school run, it dies down, bringing the average down.

“That actually gives that, kind of, reassurance to anyone who goes into a project [to address air pollution] to go, the average, the projections are not going to be over a dangerous level,” she says.

The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and Department of Transport did jointly set up the Urban Transport Related Air Pollution (UTRAP) working group, in response to high levels of nitrogen dioxide.

Policies for both national and ambient air pollution that the UTRAP working group has come up with are planned to be published in coming weeks, said the Department of Climate spokesperson.

The EPA is working on LIFE Emerald, a project which aims to provide a three-day forecast of air quality for Ireland, using modelling, said the EPA spokesperson.

Close to the Source

Bedos watches as a man with a crutch gingerly crosses Phibsboro Road in front of waiting traffic.

She knows someone with asthma who avoids the junction, she says. “She avoids Doyle’s Corner at all costs.”

“She comes home, she wheezes. We have a situation where people stay at home because they can’t deal with all this,” says Bedos.

Stanistreet, the RCSI professor, says everyone’s health can be impacted by close exposure to air pollution. But those with health issues or who are pregnant are especially vulnerable.

Recent studies have shown how air pollution particles have been found in foetuses and to increase risk of miscarriage.

Stanistreet says she thinks people aren’t really conscious of how close they are to air pollution on the street.

“If people would realise sitting in the car with children is more dangerous than walking, because of the sucking of pollution into the car,” she says. “I just don’t think it is a consideration.”

Drivers might not leave their engines idling, she says, if they realised how much pollution they were pushing out into the streets around them.

“It’s that complete lack of awareness. They think they are keeping warm, but what they are doing is contributing to a very high level of air pollution,” she says.

It’s invisible in a way, she says. “People can’t see it and they presume it isn’t an issue.”

Gallagher says that research by his department of personal exposure along the River Liffey showed a big difference in the concentrations of air pollution particles in different spots.

Along the boardwalk, where there is a wall between the sensor and the traffic, the readings showed the air was a lot clearer than those picked up by the sensor along the footpath right next to the road, he says.

“That’s where segregating cycle lanes and even giving that little barrier, might not seem too much, but there are benefits to it,” he says.

Not as many residents drive in Phibsboro as people who drive through it, says Bedos.

“Funnelling that much traffic into an area and not actually informing people on what consequences it has on their health and day-to-day life,” she says.

Space in Phibsboro, particularly at Doyle’s Corner, needs to be given to walking and cycling, she says.

Right now, under the BusConnects plans, the existing cycle lane on will be rerouted down Blessington Street Park. However, vehicle lanes will be kept the same through the village.

“You need to prioritise walking and cycling and public transport. So you need to curtail the road space for cars and for private car traffic,” says Bedos. “We are hitting a wall with the climate.”

“It shouldn’t be a big ask to actually just have an area where you can breathe clean air and talk to somebody on the side of the road without raising your voice,” she says.

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Author:

Claudia Dalby: Claudia Dalby is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. She's especially interested in stories about the southside, transport, and kids in the city. Get in touch at [email protected]

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