Air pollution poses the biggest environmental hazard to human health across the United Kingdom, and the nation-state of Northern Ireland is no exception to this. Home to 3% of the UK’s population, the impacts of Northern Ireland air pollution are estimated to contribute toward 553 premature deaths annually.1 There are several pollutants of concern in Northern Ireland. Air quality breaches have been recorded against both the UK and European Union’s legal limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone (O3), while levels of harmful fine particulate matter (PM2.5) also exceed the World Health Organisation’s target limit in several locations. Air pollution can contribute to a range of both short-term and long-term health impacts. Short-term effects can include irritation of eyes, nose and throat; and aggravation of respiratory diseases such as asthma. Long-term exposure to air pollutants increases the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, as well as cancer.2
According to IQAir’s 2019 World Air Quality Report, Northern Ireland’s capital city, Belfast was the UK’s 3rd most polluted city for PM2.5 pollution in 2019, out of a total of 130 cities reported.3 Belfast air pollution measured an annual average of 12.9 μg/m3 PM2.5 concentration in 2019, exceeding the WHO’s guideline of an annual mean concentration of 10 μg/m3 by 29 percent. Belfast ranked 3rd only after the English town of Chatham in Kent (14.0 μg/m3), and the village of Stockton in Warwickshire, England (13.1 μg/m3). Northern Ireland’s 5th largest city, Bangor also exceeded the WHO target with an annual average PM2.5 concentration of 10.7 μg/m3; while the other two cities with available PM2.5 data achieved the WHO target. Londonderry, the nation’s 2nd largest city averaged 9.9 μg/m3 during 2019, while the smaller town of Enniskillen averaged a significantly lower 5.2 μg/m3. With this low measurement, Enniskillen in fact ranked as the UK’s 4th cleanest city for PM2.5 pollution during 2019, behind Harmondsworth in England (4.3 μg/m3), and Stirling (4.9 μg/m3) and Midlothian (5.1 μg/m3) in Scotland.3 While this only represents a small sample of locations within Northern Ireland with available data, it illustrates that the country can experience a range of both high and low air pollution levels in different areas.
In keeping with much of UK air quality, some areas of Northern Ireland are also found to experience illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution (NO2). Of available data which includes 16 monitoring sites across the country during 2018, 3 locations were found to exceed the UK and EU legal annual mean NO2 limit of 40 μg/m3. These were Downpatrick Roadside, in the town of Downpatrick (47 μg/m3); Belfast Stockman’s Lane, in the capital city Belfast (49 μg/m3); and Limavady Dungiven, in the town of Dungiven (51 μg/m3).
Some Northern Irish sites have also been measured to have illegally high levels of ozone (O3) pollution, against the UK’s Air Quality Strategy target objective not to exceed 100 μg/m3 of ozone on more than 10 days per year. Two of four monitored sites, in urban Derry Rosemount (Londonderry) and the rural Lough Navar (near Enniskillen) exceeded this limit with 13 and 16 days of breaches during 2018, respectively.4
Real-time air pollution levels across the country can be viewed in the Northern Ireland air quality map at the top of this page, together with a 7-day Northern Ireland air quality forecast. These can also be viewed at any time using the IQAir AirVisual mobile app.
One key source of air pollution in Northern Ireland is from solid fuel burning in residential homes.1 Some measures have already been put in place within the country to limit emissions from residential fuel burning, such as the ‘Smoke Control Areas’ (SCAs) initiative put in place with the Clean Air (Northern Ireland) Order of 1981.5 The SCAs make burning certain unauthorised fuels at home illegal, such as household coal, slack, turf or wood, and domestic burning must only be carried out using authorised appliances or selected fuels that are proven not to produce smoke.5 Northern Ireland and Ireland air pollution have shared this issue of smoky fuel burning in the past, and have traditionally tackled this through similar policies; in Ireland, smoky coal bans have also been introduced. While both programs have had success in reducing emissions from smoky coal, residential fuel burning remains a significant contributor to local air pollution emissions.1
In particular, Northern Ireland particulate matter emissions are generated from household fuel burning in addition to road transport; while nitrogen dioxide emissions are largely generated by vehicle exhaust emissions.6 Ozone is a secondary pollutant which is formed through the interaction of other air pollutants in the presence of sunlight; as a consequence, ozone levels tend to be higher during warmer, sunnier days or seasons.4
In addition to these pollutants, Northern Ireland is also responsible for generating 12% of the UK’s overall ammonia emissions, despite having only 3% of the UK’s population and 6% of its land mass. The agriculture sector is the largest contributor to these emissions, having been responsible for 96% of these in 2017.4 Ammonia (NH3) emissions can have a range of negative impacts on the natural environment, particularly damaging biodiversity and sensitive habitats. Ammonia can also react with other pollutants in the air to form fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions, which are especially harmful to human health.7
Northern Ireland’s air quality management is largely influenced by the requirements of the European Union’s Air Quality Directives, as well as the 2007 UK Air Quality Strategy. The requirements of these initiatives are integrated into Northern Ireland’s own legislation, most recently through Northern Ireland’s ‘Air Quality Standards Regulations’ of 2010.4 As is the case across much of the UK, Northern Ireland’s air quality management is largely carried out at the local level. Northern Ireland’s Local Air Quality Management (LAQM) framework devolves part of this management to the nation-state’s 11 district councils, who are responsible to try to ensure their areas meet the UK Air Quality Strategy’s objectives. As in the rest of the UK, if local measurements suggest an area will not meet those objectives, the district council is obliged to declare an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA), and develop an Action Plan to address the issue.4 As of 2018, Northern Ireland had 19 AQMA’s across 9 councils. Of these councils, 7 of the AQMAs relate to NO2 levels breaching the national objectives, and the remaining 2 council AQMAs are addressing both NO2 and PM10 breaches.4
In 2018, the country had 19 automatic monitoring station measuring Northern Ireland air quality across 9 cities.4 These monitoring stations are run either by the Northern Ireland government Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), or managed by local district councils as part of the Local Air Quality Management (LAQM) framework towards which DAERA contributes funding.4
In addition to supporting the EU and UK’s air quality objectives, Northern Ireland also has independent policies and initiatives in place. For example, DAERA is working with stakeholders to develop a plan to address the country’s relatively high ammonia emissions. Additionally, to encourage higher use of public transport within Belfast, the government Department for Infrastructure developed the Belfast Rapid Transport (BRT) and opened a new ‘Glider’ service, which runs on hybrid diesel/electric engines, which offer a 90% air pollution emissions reduction from other comparable bus services. The service links East and West Belfast, and the Titanic quarter via the city centre.4
Northern Ireland’s DAERA also adopts the UK-wide Daily Air Quality Index (DAQI) scale to present air pollution within a Northern Ireland Air Quality Index to the public. The DAQI converts air pollution measurements into a single measure of health hazard, on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 represents “Low” health hazard, while 10 represents “Very high” health hazard.8 The Northern Ireland AQI therefore strives to communicate sometimes complex pollution measurements into a simple, easy-to-understand metric for public understanding, to empower people to take actions and protect their health.
+ Article Resources
 Ricardo. “Residential Solid Fuel and Air Pollution Study”. Limerick website, March 15, 2016.
 World Health Organisation. “Ambient air pollution: Health impacts”. WHO website, n.d.
 IQAir. “2019 World Air Quality Report”. IQAir website, March 18, 2020.
 Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA). “Air Pollution in Northern Ireland 2018”. DAERA Northern Ireland Air Quality website, 2018.
 Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council. “Air Quality”. Antrim & Newtownabbey Borough Council website, n.d.
 DAERA. “Air pollution and smoke control”. Northern Ireland government DAERA website, n.d.
 DAERA. “Ammonia emissions in Northern Ireland”. Northern Ireland government DAERA website, n.d.
 DAERA. “Daily Air Quality Index”. DAERA Northern Ireland Air Quality website, n.d.