Polish and Italian populations breath dangerously polluted air, a new report by the Swiss air monitoring platform IQAir shows. According to the research, among the continent’s 100 worst cities for air quality, 29 are in Poland and 24 in Italy.

IQAir collected data on toxic fine particulate (PM2.5 or particulates < 2.5µm, whose diameters are less than 2.5 micrometers), whose deleterious health impacts are particularly serious as they can be drawn deep into the lungs and may cause and respiratory problems.. As for the World Health Organization’s guideline, a maximum of 10 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter is considered acceptable.

“Air pollution continues to present varied challenges across different parts of Europe, as only 36% of European cities with PM2.5 monitoring in place met the WHO’s annual target for PM2.5,” the report reads.

“Within Europe, 2019’s PM2.5 levels were generally found to be highest in Eastern and Southern Europe, with the cleanest cities and regions mostly found in Northern and Western Europe. While PM2.5 emission sources vary considerably across the continent, common sources include energy production and use, industry, agriculture and livestock, road transport, and households and commercial buildings.”

Across the EU, an Italian city recorded the worst levels. Ceglie Messapica in Southern Italy is also number 8 in the Europe ranking (with an annual average of 30.7 micrograms of fine particulate per cubic meter last year). Similar figures also appeared in flat industrialised areas such as the Po Valley.

“Making the invisible visible is the mantra repeated by environmental activists to increase the awareness in citizens and politicians on this tremendous silent killer,” said Laura Po, associate professor at University of Modena and Reggio Emilia and the leader of the EU project TRAFAIR.

“For fighting air pollution in such risky areas for the protection of human health, new tools are needed to help gather additional insights about local environmental conditions in the city, to in-deep and extensively monitoring urban air quality, to hypothesize and test new effective scenario that might fix the air pollution issue, to go over the actual traffic limitation rules that have been shown to be inadequate in these contexts.”

By the end of February, an air quality dashboard showing real-time measurements from low-cost air cubes in Modena (number 38 in Europe, 9 in Italy) will provide measurements of four polluting gas in different areas within the city.

In the list of countries from worst to best, Poland and Italy are number 53 and 59 respectively. Romania is number 54, followed by Slovakia (61), Hungary (66), Lithuania (67), Czech Republic (68), Latvia (69), Belgium (70), France (71) and Austria (72).

Over half of the air pollution in Poland comes from domestic boilers and furnaces, says Piotr Siergiej from Polish Smog Alert, an organisation aiming to make Polish air clean and compliant with Polish and European air quality standards).

“Each year about 4 million polish households equipped with old solid fuel furnaces burn 12 million tonnes of coal and an unknown amount of wood. Replacing these furnaces with a clean source of heat is a significant challenge for polish society. It is not easy for economical and social reasons, but it is the only solution for heavily polluted polish towns and villages. Fortunately, we can see a big shift in public opinion on clean air and growing understanding of the causes of air pollution.”

“Polish government has created a legal framework and announced support of 103 billion zł for retrofitting houses and replacing heat sources. On a local level, anti-smog resolutions were adopted ordering the liquidation of the oldest boilers. But the process of smog removal in Poland will be long and painful. The government support program is completed in only 3%. Also, the process of liquidating old furnaces is going very slowly. Society expects bigger financial support from local and national governments.”

Poland and Italy are two different cases, the director of Air Quality Monitoring Yann Boquillod told Forbes.com.

“In Poland, the use of coal power plants is one of the main drivers for air pollution, especially in the winter heating season when the electricity demand surge and the weather conditions are creating temperature inversions,” Boquillod explained. “Moving away from coal as a source of energy is the way forward for Poland and it will still take years for that transition to happen.”

“For Italy, especially the northern part of Italy, the air pollution comes from emissions of the industry and transport. In the winter season, the weather conditions are very unfavorable due to temperature inversion that prevents the air pollution from dispersing in the higher layers of the atmosphere. The biggest problem in Italy is the lack of awareness by citizens. The Italian government is publishing little or no real-time air quality data, therefore preventing access to actionable air quality information for citizens. Without a strong awareness, there will be limited demand for a change from Italian citizens.”

IQAir also showed that air pollution continues to pose one of the biggest threats to human health, with 90% of the global population breathing unsafe air. It highlights that elevated air pollution levels are a result of climate change events, like sandstorms and wildfires, while pollution gains from the rapid urbanization of cities in regions such as Southeast Asia.



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