Experts call for public health campaign over growing ammonia danger

Cattle are the largest contributor to ammonia emissions in Northern Ireland. Photo by James Nicholl, Creative Commons

Cattle are the largest contributor to ammonia emissions in Northern Ireland. Photo by James Nicholl, Creative Commons

A PUBLIC health campaign should be launched to warn of the dangers of rising ammonia levels across Northern Ireland, experts have said.

Ammonia, a nitrogen compound which mainly comes from animal waste, can impact air and water quality, damages sensitive habitats and poses health risks to humans.

Figures show that Northern Ireland’s ammonia emissions are rising.

Between 2005 and 2020, emissions rose by 5%, compared to a 10% decrease in Scotland and England.

Joseph Carter, from the Asthma and Lung UK charity, told The Detail that a public health campaign is needed to warn people of the dangers of ammonia pollution.

“If you asked most people about ammonia in Ireland or the UK, they would probably not be able to tell you anything about it other than perhaps the [strong] smell,” he said.

When ammonia mixes with other gases in the atmosphere it can form polluting particulate matter which can exist for several days and be carried long distances.

Mr Carter, who is also chairman of Healthy Air Northern Ireland, said public awareness of ammonia and particle pollution is low.

"People, for example, are sold images that burning wood is a ‘green’ thing to do - despite the particulate matter levels this produces," he said.

"So a comprehensive educational campaign really is needed on both ammonia and on PM2.5 (particle pollution).”

He said Northern Ireland’s ammonia levels were not just a concern for rural communities.

“Particulate matter can travel great distances, and can in some cases come across the Irish Sea,” he said.

“So it’s a big problem. And it does mean that producing such high levels of ammonia will also have serious health ramifications for urban areas as well.”

Joseph Carter, from the Asthma and Lung UK charity

Joseph Carter, from the Asthma and Lung UK charity

Each year, nearly 800 people across Northern Ireland die as a result of air pollution - including from health conditions caused by ammonia and particle pollution - according to the British Heart Foundation.

“It is costing people’s lives,” Mr Carter said.

“It is contributing to people developing lung conditions right now - and certainly to children developing asthma at a young age.

“We know it can lead to certain types of cancers, strokes, diabetes, different kinds of heart conditions. The list goes on. And the more the scientists find out, the scarier it gets.”

Air pollution expert Dr Ulrike Dragosits, from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said the public needs to be made aware of the health and environmental risks posed by ammonia.

“I don’t think the general public is aware…of ammonia in general,” she said.

“The carbon story has had much better publicity, in that sense.”

When asked if it planned to launch a public awareness campaign on the health impact of ammonia pollution, the Department of Health told The Detail it was a matter for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera).

A Daera spokesman said it “does not have plans to develop or launch a public awareness campaign on the potential human health implications of ammonia pollution”.

"Daera is however engaged with partners including Defra, the UK Environment Agency, and the National Institute for Health Research, on a number of research projects exploring the link between the health impacts of air pollution (especially that derived from ammonia emissions) and agricultural activities," he said.

Protected sites in Northern Ireland are under threat from ammonia pollution. Graphic by Chris Scott, The Detail

Protected sites in Northern Ireland are under threat from ammonia pollution. Graphic by Chris Scott, The Detail

Ammonia emissions

A draft strategy on how to reduce ammonia levels - the only one of its kind in the UK and Republic - was published by the Department for Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) earlier this year.

Northern Ireland accounts for 12% of the UK’s total ammonia emissions, due to its heavy economic reliance on agriculture, despite having just 6% of the land area and 3% of the population.

Around two-thirds of Northern Ireland’s ammonia emissions come from beef and dairy farming, while just over 20% come from the intensive poultry and pig sectors.

Poultry numbers increased from just under 19.2 million in 2012 to around 20.6m last year.

The number of pigs being farmed in the north has risen from 426,900 in 2012 to 738,540 last year - a 73% rise.

Although cattle numbers have only seen a slight increase in the last decade - from just over 1.6m in 2012 to just under 1.7m last year, cows contribute more to ammonia emissions.

“Poultry is a big driver in terms of increased numbers, with the poultry industry being on the up,” Dr Dragosits said.

“But the main contributor to ammonia emissions in Northern Ireland is and has always been cattle.

“And cattle are also the main greenhouse gas producers - both with enteric methane, which is emitted by burping from their stomachs, and also the nitrous oxide and methane emitted from their manure, from the animal houses, manure and slurry stores and land spreading.”

She said while emissions from vehicle pollution have fallen since the 1990s, ammonia levels have risen.

“It used to be that NOx - the nitrogen form mainly emitted from combustion processes - was larger than ammonia nitrogen,” she said.

“And, with all the very successful reduction in NOx emissions, that part of the deposition has really come down over the last decades.

“But ammonia hasn’t really come down.”

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