I very much welcome this Bill and support its overall provisions which are to control and reduce the very serious air pollution problem that now exists in Ireland, particularly in the main population centres. Since the Second Stage was moved on 24 March there have been many contributions to the debate highlighting the very serious levels of pollution and the greater health problems which this pollution has given rise to. There has also been much comment in the press in relation to this matter and many scientific and medical reports have been analysed, from which it can reasonably be concluded that people who suffered from respiratory diseases have actually died when air pollution levels have been very high. In addition a great deal of illness has been caused during the winter months, particularly when certain climatic conditions have obtained. This matter needs to be tackled urgently and effectively. While this Bill sets about providing a framework, it lacks some of the punch necessary to have this serious problem resolved quickly and effectively.
Previous speakers have pointed out their concern that this is enabling legislation which will empower local authorities to take certain actions to control air pollution in their areas. I am worried about the commitment on the part of local authorities to taking required action speedily, due to financial constraints or the low priority they would give to such action. Some local authorities do not have a good record on environmental pollution generally and I should like the Minister to bring in a Bill directing the local authorities on what action to take to tackle the air pollution problems in their areas.
The primary reason for urgent legislation in this area is the serious health aspect involved. The provisions of the Bill should ensure that many of our fine public buildings and monuments are protected from the ravages of pollution.
My main concern in regard to the Bill is the health of those who live in areas where pollution is very high.
An article in last Thursday's issue of The Irish Times outlined the findings of two doctors and they gave me cause for concern. Their report was first published in the Irish Medical Journal in 1984 and the main point of it was that, due to climatic conditions in Dublin in 1982, elderly people were admitted to St. James's Hospital with cardiac respiratory problems at a higher rate than normal. Many of those patients did not respond to treatment as well as they normally would. According to the article there were 120 deaths at the hospital in January 1982 compared to an average monthly death rate of 54 and an average January death rate of 64. Between 14 and 20 January 1982 there were 39 deaths and, significantly, those deaths occurred at a time when high levels of air pollution were recorded in Dublin. The article clearly showed the effects of the combination of high levels of pollution and the climatic conditions which obtained at that time, a condition known as temperature inversion where a layer of cold air traps hot air and prevents it from rising. In such conditions smoke particles are retained at a low level and consequently people are affected adversely.
It would appear that, given our high level of air pollution, we are fortunate that that type of climatic condition does not occur regularly. Otherwise our annual death rate would be much higher. I understand that the use of coal has increased by 150 per cent in the past 10 years and that has given rise to a huge build up of sulphur dioxide and smoke particles in the built up urban areas such as Ballyfermot in my constituency which contains approximately 6,000 houses. It is a high density area and there is a high concentration of open fires. The total smoke load in the Dublin area is 16,000 tonnes and about 80 per cent of that comes from domestic sources. It is well documented that several of the city's monitoring stations have recorded smoke levels far in excess of EC limits which are 250 microgrammes per cubic metre. Those limits are also accepted by the World Health Organisation as an upper limit which should not be breached.
Medical opinion is that exposure to smoke levels in excess of those limits gives rise to respiratory problems and can, ultimately, lead to death. One of the highest levels of smoke ever recorded was in Ballyfermot on 31 January 1987 when the level reached 1,429 microgrammes per cubic metre or five times the daily permitted EC limit. That statistic has been mentioned by other speakers from that constituency but I do not make any apology for repeating it because action must be taken to ensure that such a level of pollution does not occur in the future. Pollution in that area must be brought under control. The EC limit, I understand, should not be exceeded on more than seven days in one year and yet between November 1986 and February 1987 the levels in Ballyfermot exceeded that limit on a total of 30 days. That is very much outside what is acceptable and it further underlines the need for the introduction of legislation that will quickly control what is a serious problem.
When one thinks of control the big question that arises is that of cost. The high density urban areas of Dublin are where the less-well off members of our community live and those people, even with the best will in the world, are unable to spend money on alternative fuels. A change over from an open grate system to a smokeless fuel is expensive and I understand that smokeless fuels cost in the region of 50 per cent more than ordinary bituminous coal. The whole area of cost and funding is crucial to the success of the measures in the Bill. I understand that before a local authority designate an area as a special control area, they must satisfy the Minister. It is at that stage that local authorities can seek assistance from the Department by way of grants to help people convert from open fire grates and assist in the purchase of smokeless fuels. The Minister has discretion in this regard but I fear, given the economic circumstances of the country, the old excuse of money not being available will be trotted out and will result in long delays in bringing in effective controls on air pollution. My colleague, Deputy Gibbons, touched on that point in his contribution.
Will the Government make finance available to ensure that householders who cannot afford to comply with conditions in the Bill will be given assistance to purchase smokeless fuels? I have no doubt that a cost-benefit analysis would confirm that huge savings in public expenditure could be achieved if people got assistance to convert to smokeless fuels. Huge sums of money are spent on health care and a lot of that could be saved if we lived in a pollution-free environment. I suggest to the Minister that he should sanction such an analysis for an area like Ballyfermot.
The Bill is another reminder of the necessity for a comprehensive energy policy. One of our greatest natural resources is Kinsale gas, an ideal fuel for areas of high density housing in that it does not cause pollution. The Government should consider distributing natural gas more widely on the domestic market. The inter-relationship between the price of the various energy sources must be examined. If we could have cheaper electricity by charging the ESB less for the natural gas they consume and if we could have cheaper natural gas by an adjustment in the Government's pricing policy, it could lead to greater use of pollution-free fuels with a consequent major decrease in the unacceptable levels of air pollution, particularly in Dublin city.