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Did Phil Hogan save your life?

By Donna Mullen

I’ve recently joined a running group, and think a lot about air pollution as I gasp my way around Bailieboro, Co Cavan. Having trained as a cardiac technician (many years ago) I worked in the Mater Hospital in Dublin when Mary Harney first brought in the smoky-coal ban, and the effect – the ambulances stopped arriving. Immediately.

Deaths from heart disease dropped by 15%, deaths from respiratory disease dropped by 10% and all other deaths (except those by trauma) dropped by 7%. In fact, according to an article by Luke Clancy et al in the Lancet, 357 lives have been saved in Dublin every year since the smoky coal ban came into force.

One in three of us will have a heart attack. Indeed this accounts for my sudden interest in fitness as I hit my fiftieth birthday. One in three of us will get cancer. So a drop in mortality of up to 15% from these illnesses is very significant.

And the benefit of the smoky coal ban in monetary terms was €20 million, according to the Department of the Environment.

But what if you don’t live in Dublin? Are rural lungs as important as urban lungs? Phil Hogan extended the ban on smoky coal to any town with a population of over 50,000, thus saving the lives of many more Irish people.

But I never thanked him. Because the problem with environmental pollution is that it goes unnoticed – killing us softly. A report from the World Health Organisation confirmed 7 million people died in 2012 from air pollution. They stated that air pollution is the single

But as I puff and wheeze my way around Bailieboro, the things which scare me are dark alleyways, creepy strangers, and a whole mass of other harmless objects. In reality the danger lies in the smoky air I’m breathing and the water (taken from a well) which I carry in my water bottle. But I don’t notice the environmental dangers.

Constitutional protection of our right to clean air, water and protection of our biodiversity would give visibility to our environment – it would give the environment the status it deserves. Our constitution is not just a legal document, it is a philosophical document. It sets out our vision, our ‘ten commandments’ for our country – the things we hold precious. And it shows that our priorities were skewed. Property has been protected in our constitution for many years, but our children have only recently received Constitutional protection – and the environment? It’s not mentioned at all.

To enforce environmental protection we frequently have to take environmental cases to the European courts. This is a long, slow process, which generally results in damage to Ireland’s reputation and subsequent fines. The Irish taxpayer could spend this money in more productive ways. Constitutional protection, along the lines long-since enshrined in South Africa for example, would allow us to sort out environmental problems in our own backyard.

But meanwhile our health goes downhill. A study aptly called ‘Every Breath You Take’ showed that 97% of European citizens are exposed to ground ozone levels above those deemed safe by the World Health Organisation. It’s enough to make you gasp.

And a recent study of 345,143 Dutch patients by Joanda Maas et al showed that deaths from depression and anxiety decreased significantly if you lived within 1km of a quality green space. This was especially important for children and those living in low socio-economic groups

So even if we don’t concern ourselves with the intrinsic rights of nature, and we would just like to live a few years longer, it makes sense to give the environment our strongest legal protection – constitutional. We need to demand our right to clean air, water and biodiversity, constitutionally. We must lobby as if our lives depended on it – because they do!

Our politicians are currently writing their election manifestos, and problems with the healthcare budget, access to mental health services, Accident and Emergency Depts. and waiting lists are issues which concern us all. But wouldn’t it be better not to get sick in the first place? Clean air, water and biological diversity are key to our health, both physical and mental.

Small towns in Ireland still don’t have a smoky coal ban. As I jog through the smog in Bailieboro I think about smoky coal, our Constitution and even Phil Hogan. We can continue to introduce piecemeal environmental legislation. It’s better than nothing – but it is fiddling while Rome (or Bailieboro) burns. Constitutional environmental protection is required. Or we can sit idly by and watch while our environment goes up in smoke. •