Air pollution could kill 12,000 people across the island of Ireland by 2030, a charity has warned.
The shocking figure was released in a joint statement by the British Heart Foundation Northern Ireland (BHF NI) and the Irish Heart Foundation.
Both charities have called for urgent action to protect the heart and circulatory health across the island from the most dangerous types of air pollution, particulate matter (PM).
Among the demands are for an island-wide ban on the worst polluting fuels.
BHF has previously funded £5.8m in medical research showing that high levels of air pollution can significantly increase the chances of a fatal heart attack or stroke.
The research showed that PM can remain in the bloodstream for at least three months, causing build-up of fatty materials in the arteries, blood clots and potentially disrupting the normal electrical functioning of the heart.
Fearghal McKinney, the head of BHF NI, said: “Every day, millions of us across the United Kingdom and Ireland are inhaling toxic particles which enter our blood and get stuck in our organs, raising our risk of heart attacks and stroke. Make no mistake — our toxic air is a public health emergency.
“Our analysis suggests that if we don’t take action now, heart and circulatory disease deaths related to air pollution on the island of Ireland could total 12,000 by 2030. Decision makers owe it to future generations to help stop this alarming figure from becoming a reality.”
Dr Tim Collins, chief executive of Irish Heart Foundation, added: ‘’Air pollution does not respect boundaries and on the island of Ireland, toxic air from the burning of solid fuel in the home is having a detrimental impact on the health of those both north and south of the border”.
He stressed that unless the issue was addressed across both jurisdictions, thousands more lives will be lost.
“Unfortunately, it is those most vulnerable, children, older people and those living with chronic diseases that will be most affected,” he said.
The joint statement also said that new polling data indicated the general public were largely unaware of the risks to their health.
This included only 7% of people in Northern Ireland identifying heart and circulatory disease as the main cause of death caused by air pollution, with 19% in the Irish Republic.
Other leading causes of air pollution include domestic wood and coal burning, a particular issue in urban areas of Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK.
“We look forward to seeing the first Clean Air Strategy for Northern Ireland delivered with urgency that must include a commitment to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on particulate matter (PM) and a ban on smoky coal and wet wood,” Dr Collins said.
“Air pollution is a major public health challenge, and it requires an urgent and bold response.”