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[00:00:01]

That pot Kenny show on Newstalk. Now, 30 years ago, the then minister of state of the Department of the Environment, Mary Harney, introduced a ban on the sale of smoky coal in Dublin. It was controversial. It was unpopular in many quarters at the time. The decision to impose the ban was to a large extent driven by research coming out of St. James Hospital on excess deaths occurring in the capital due to air pollution. One of the authors of that research was Professor Luke Flouncy, director general of the Tobacco Free Research Institute Ireland.

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And he's on the line now. Ed, good morning and welcome, Luke.

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Good morning. Good to talk to you.

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Bring us back to those smoggy days back in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. How bad was air quality in the city of Dublin?

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It was really bad. Some 30 years earlier there, you know, we talked about the pea soup and smog in London and in fact, the levels of black smoke, which was the way it was measured at that time here in the 80s. Was in the 70s, indeed was similar to those in London, and in fact, we had some levels measuring higher than in the worst places in London. So it was really bad. You could hardly see where you're going.

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I have several photographs of Merrion Square where you couldn't see your hand and looking at the sun as if it was setting. So it's it was it was bad in terms of visuals. Yeah.

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I mean, we see those kind of images coming out of cities like Mexico City or Beijing. Now, we just don't see them in Ireland because we have cleaned up our act. And so when you get a temperature inversion, when everything is still because we're burning much more gas than than coal or turf in the city, we don't have the same problem today.

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That's that's right. I mean, bizarrely, this was something that the government brought on, as I feel like now, through no fault of their own, the aid crisis in the Middle East in 73 led to a change of policy. We realized then that we weren't going to have always and natural gas hadn't hadn't arrived. So the government encouraged people to switch to solid fuel. So when we started asking them to undo this, it was politically difficult for them.

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And as you know, without going over to detail, it took them 10 years to really admit that this was really bad and that it was killing the people of Dublin and led ultimately to the ban.

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I mean, you had in 1990, 82, a fierce smog. And the numbers were actually frightening in terms of the excess deaths, which we now talk about excess excess deaths by covid-19 over the norm. But you had significantly excess deaths from respiratory conditions because of the smog of 1982.

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Yeah, that was the same thing to hear them talk about it. Now, it is one of the most useful measures because there's all sorts of things and how sure, if you had to diagnose, etc.. But when you see, as we did, the mortality doubling in Dublin now, I was most conscious of the respiratory deaths because I was respiratory physician. But in fact, when I looked at it in detail, these excess deaths occurred not only in response to but in cardiac as well.

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And in fact, the earlier deaths were more likely to be cardiac. It was it took some week or two weeks for the smog to have its effect. And this is one of my difficulties because people just didn't take a breath and drop down dead. It took time to die and it takes time to die from a respiratory condition where you have to develop respiratory failure and then be given oxygen and then it isn't sufficient and you die. And that was one of the problems because they said, oh, look, the smog is gone and people are dying now.

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It can't be due to the smog. And of course, they also can't be due to the smog, because when we measured it, when it was measured, it was a black smoke. But sulfur dioxide, which had been the main pollutant, killed people in London, was relatively normal in Dublin. So they call information services, cut out a whole booklet to show why it couldn't be due to the smog, that whatever it was, it was something up in James's inner city.

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And those kind of people, you know, they'll have other problems and it won't be due to the smog, because science has shown that if you die from smog, it's sulfur dioxide that kills you. And in fact, sulfur dioxide was not very high. The concept that time of particles killing you was it was unknown. I mean, we had to argue that whatever was coming, it was the smog. And what we could measure and see was the particles.

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And that was one of the important bits of that research. It showed that in a city like Dublin with very bad smog, but not very bad sulphur dioxide, people were still dying. And this has been used as a model all over the world. And this notion that particles, even though they're relatively inert, I mean, there are two was going to become acidic and was going to it was easy to see how it might hurt you put these carbon particles were inert.

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What could they do? And of course, we now found that they kill you. And the interesting thing about Dublin is that when the ban was brought in, the pollution levels dropped immediately and never came back up again. I mean, it's not that we have no pollution, but the levels that we saw in the 80s were never seen again. So this was an improvement.

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Coming in of the text are some memories. I grew up near Marlay Park in Dublin, and I remember well that in winter there appeared to be a big waxy like cheesecake sitting over the city every morning. It was horrible.

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I never realised it was down to what we were burning in our great not the one I lived in Bali farmers at the time of the ban. In winter before the ban, you couldn't see the end of the street due to the smog. It's hard to believe it was only thirty years ago. And that's from Peter now, Luke.

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And they are from today extending the ban on smoking fuels to other towns and cities. Yes, well, we're delighted to hear that, I mean, their pollution is still contributing to excess deaths. It's nothing like it was, but it's real and it's measurable. Now, we don't measure it accurately in Ireland because that takes money and research and it's not been put into it. But we know it and we know from other people, other countries and cities.

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So, yes, it's still contributing. But also we now have a real climate, a reason to do it, ecological reason to do it. And there is seems to me to be no real justification for burning coal in Ireland today. It does contribute to impose their own turf.

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What about those people? They would say we're small in number and it's an important contributor to our well-being. In the winter, we're out in the middle of nowhere. We're burning turf. It doesn't affect anybody.

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Well, you have to take this on board because there is no such situation as zero pollution. So it's a matter of what society will tolerate. If you think it's all right to kill a few people, then fire ahead. But it does contribute and we've got to face it. But we may decide to accept the risk and accept the mortality that it brings. But if it's burned in town, which was the compromise, you may remember, they allowed peak burning and smokeless coal to placate the industry.

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And I suppose we weren't as confident that natural gas was going to solve all the problems. But you can't there's no zero pollution and society has to decide what it will accept. But as I suggest, not only is it bad for our health, but it's contributing to the climate change, which we are resolved to improve. And here's something we can do at a stroke. Now, they say they can't because the coal I mean, I nearly laughed.

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This coal industry wouldn't let them. They would if they brought it in, they'd take some sort of case. So what sort of country are we where we know we can save the lives of our citizens if we bring in a restriction on burning coal? And we won't do it because a couple of companies said they're going to sue them. The state should face down such opposition and do what's right and do what we know to be necessary and useful and good.

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On that note, Professor Lou Clancy, thank you very much for bringing us back to 30 years ago, things have improved, but more work to be done.

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Professor Lugazi, thank you very much for joining us.

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There, Pat Candy show on Newstalk.