Guest writer David Monagan, a US science and medical journalist, fires back against recent moves to ban "an icon of Ireland’s very identity."

The Irish Examiner recently ran a lead article (Ban of Selling Turf ‘Can’t be Delayed’ -- April 16, 2022) proclaiming that dire health consequences would befall the nation unless turf burning -- an icon of Ireland’s very identity -- is ceased immediately and forevermore.

The article, likely spurred by a single press release, began: “Senior medical and scientific bodies have warned the Government that it must press ahead with the proposed turf-selling ban, insisting the decision ‘simply cannot be delayed.”

But in reality, the only identifiable “senior” authority referenced was one Colm Byrne, a newly minted (2021) Ph.D. He was described as a “leading authority on the link between air quality and stroke.”

Okay. I myself was a “leading” specialist medical writer for 30 years covering the largest cardiovascular conferences across Europe and North America where stroke was a subject of constant featured research, so I have credentials in disputing this as nonsense.

Byrne was cited as being a spokesman for a radical activist group called the Irish Climate and Health Alliance, which asserted that “1,400 lives (are) needlessly lost in Ireland due to poor air quality every year.”

This number or its correlative of 1,300 “premature deaths” have been repeated over and over in recent years without a shred of convincing evidence or analysis of what kind of specious computer modeling these numbers arise from.

A pile of turf in Connemara, County Galway.

A pile of turf in Connemara, County Galway.

Byrne is directly quoted as saying, “The health impact of domestic fuel burning is devastating.” In tones reminiscent of some English lord in the 1700s, he went on to link this exposure to infertility, miscarriage, and inflammatory bowel disease. “’When you sit in front of an open fire, you are exposed to similar levels of toxic fumes found in traffic spots at rush hour,’ said Dr. Byrne.”

“Dr.” Byrne bills himself an expert on a field that has never before existed – stroke and parlor smoke. His claims are made on the basis of a graduate student analysis in which he sought to tie increasing stroke rates from lower-incidence suburban neighborhoods to higher incidences among elderly residents of Dublin’s heavily congested center by citing rising numbers of a controversial measure of so-called “PM 2.5” microparticles per square meter.

To put this in perspective, the hugely polluted Chinese city of Wuhan has up to 15 times the ambient number of these Flann O’Brien-like particles (158 micrograms per meter) as is recorded in Dublin but there is absolutely no data to indicate that Wuhan is undergoing a cataclysmic rise in strokes.

A typical bracing day in rural Donegal – where turf selling is to be banned forever – might have an ambient level of these invisible nasties on an order of perhaps 10,000 times less.

Stacks of turf drying.

Stacks of turf drying.

More egregiously, Colm Byrne’s study does not even appear to have controlled for variations in such fundamental stroke risk factors as economic well-being, exercise, dietary health, living conditions, and alcohol and tobacco consumption, as would be pronounced between suburban and inner-city lifestyles.

It simply came up with a thin statistical correlation using an “ecological-time-series design with Poisson regression models.” This is why the study has never been published in any reputable, peer-reviewed medical journal.

Instead, it has appeared in two variants as one of hundreds of so-called Poster Presentations competing for attention on the outer Siberia of auditorium floors of two medical conventions and was not featured in either’s several hundred formal scientific presentations.

But this didn’t stop Byrne from ending one poster with the ringing pronouncement: “The urban burning of solid fuels should be severely restricted.” In a presentation attempting to compare his air quality findings from Dublin to Cork, Byrne concluded: “There was no significant association from all stroke admission and any individual air pollutant.” He added, “There was no significant association found in the smaller urban area of Cork.”

Despite all this, Byrne is now being deployed as a nationwide spokesperson for the Irish Climate and Health Alliance in its demands that turf burning be eradicated without debate across the entire country. Never mind the vast differences in air quality on say the Aran Islands from central Dublin, and the fact that the elimination of all turf burning in Ireland might have something like 1 millionth of the impact of China’s 43 massive new coal-fired plants coming on stream this year – the Irish Climate and Health Alliance wants total devotion now.

* David Monagan is an Irish-based US journalist and writer who specializes in science and medical topics.