Data Insights: The relationship between air pollution and health in Northern Ireland

Categories: Blogs, Data Insights, ADR Northern Ireland, Climate & Sustainability, Health & Wellbeing

Written by Neil Rowland 13 August 2020

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified ambient (outdoor) air pollution as a top environmental risk factor for mortality and disease globally. In the United Kingdom, Public Health England (PHE) has broadly estimated that between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths a year are attributed to long-term exposure.  As such, reducing the level of air pollution is a policy goal at all levels of government. In Northern Ireland, improving both public health and air quality are two policy objectives set out in the Northern Ireland Executive Programme for Government.

To understand how far reductions in air pollution can improve public health, it is first necessary to quantify their relationship. Although this relationship has been studied elsewhere, there exists no evidence for Northern Ireland, and thus no appropriate evidence base for policymakers. Linking individual-level administrative data from the Northern Ireland Longitudinal Study (NILS) to annual modelled 1x1 km grid square air pollution data (published by DEFRA), this ADRC Northern Ireland project will provide the first large-scale statistical evidence on the health impacts of air-pollution in Northern Ireland. It will also provide unique evidence on whether air pollution increases the risk of developing less commonly studied health problems, including dementia and diabetes.

In the preliminary stages of the project, we have begun to assess how air pollution levels in Northern Ireland have varied across space, time, and population sub-groups. This analysis reveals a downward trend in the level of air pollution between 2001 and 2016. Using address records in the NILS, we have obtained unique estimates of population-weighted levels of exposure at various geographies (Assembly Areas, Local Government District, Super Output Area). These estimates show where health burdens linked to pollution are likely to be greatest. To broaden the reach of these outputs, we are currently developing an online interactive dashboard which will allow users to explore the level of air pollution in their local area, potentially informing peoples’ decisions on where to live and work.

Although the main objective of this project (assessing the relationship between air pollution exposure and health) is ongoing, it is hoped that the results produced so far will be of value to policymakers and others seeking to understand how pollution exposure varies across the population.

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