Paula Freeman has run all over the world. A Leinster champion over 200 metres, she has raced in New York, Lanzarote, Tenerife and elsewhere. She trains at home, in Enniscorthy and New Ross, where she is a member of United Striders Athletic Club and EA Circuits. The difference for Ms Freeman is that when she races abroad, she does so without the fear of suffering a debilitating asthma attack.
In Wexford, where the level of polluting particles in the air caused by smoky coal is the highest in the country, things are different. Even during indoor winter training in Enniscorthy, she is affected.
“The amount of pollution in the air restricts my breathing, I have to use the inhaler a lot more. You have smog, smoke from coal, even indoors.” When she trains outside, the effects are even more obvious. “When I’m on the track in winter, I would come home and smell smoke off my clothes. I find it increasingly hard.”
She has to use antihistamines, and occasionally a nebuliser to open up her airways. She has no doubt about the cause of her difficulties.
“I do believe a lot of the pollution in the town air is a massive contributing factor to chest infections and respiratory illness,” she said. “It’s not dampness, it’s because, I believe, of the poor air quality, which is only going to get worse.”
Enniscorthy suffers from particularly bad air for two reasons: the first is the topography of the town. It is ringed by hills, meaning that on still nights in particular, pollutants linger in the town. The second reason is more politically contentious – the lack of a smoky coal ban over the town means that solid fuel is regularly burned there, producing high levels of harmful particulates called PM2.5 and PM10.
Clean air campaigners say the problem could be tackled by a nationwide ban on coal, but the Department of Climate Action and Environment has balked at introducing one in the face of legal threats from a small number of coal merchants.
The effects of poor air quality aren’t limited to Enniscorthy – 30km away, in Gorey, Breda Flood lives with a triple diagnosis. At 33, she contracted bronchitis followed by viral pneumonia, and was left with a legacy of respiratory illness. She has severe allergic asthma, alpha-1 antitrypsin, which affects her body’s capacity to fight infections, and bronchiectasis, which damages the small airways in the lungs.
She is an active member of the GAA, but during winter nighttime games, the air quality is so poor she can’t be on the sidelines. “I can’t sit outside, it’s too much of a challenge, and I’m looking through a glass window from inside.”
Air pollution leads to up to 1,500 deaths a year. The medical consequences for those with respiratory disease can be significant. At a pulmonary rehabilitation group which Ms Flood attends in Wexford, two out of three Enniscorthy residents are currently in hospital.
In March of 2016, Ms Flood herself was taken to hospital amid a bad attack. “That episode was the most frightening for me ever. They kept me in the observation ward overnight, and I didn’t know if I was going to wake up the next morning or see the daylight.”
When air quality is particularly low, the otherwise active Ms Flood is effectively housebound. “If you can’t get out for a walk and enjoy a walk, it does affect your head. Your mental health is really affected.”
For her, Richard Bruton’s decision not to sign off on a smoky coal ban is mind-boggling. “Ten times more people are killed by air pollution than road accidents in the EU.