Coal-lov­ing Poland strug­gles with killer in­dus­trial smog

33 of Europe’s 50 most pol­luted cities are in Poland

Kuwait Times - - Health -

WAR­SAW: Smog kills tens of thou­sands of Poles each year, yet en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists say the right-wing gov­ern­ment of the coal-lov­ing na­tion has been drag­ging its feet on com­bat­ing air pol­lu­tion. On some win­ter days, a grey haze ob­scures the lights of the Pol­ish cap­i­tal’s sky­scrapers and the air smells like burn­ing plas­tic. “It’s start­ing again. War­saw is sec­ond on Air Vis­ual, just after Kathmandu, and ahead of Cal­cutta and New Delhi,” says Maria, a Pol­ish mother of three young chil­dren, as she checks an air qual­ity mon­i­tor on her smart­phone while sip­ping her morn­ing cof­fee.

A 2016 World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion re­port revealed that an eye-pop­ping 33 of Europe’s 50 most pol­luted cities were in Poland. The Euro­pean En­vi­ron­men­tal Agency mean­while blames air pol­lu­tion for an es­ti­mated 50,000 pre­ma­ture deaths per year in the coun­try of 38 mil­lion. Pol­lu­tion is es­pe­cially se­vere in the south, cra­dle of Poland’s coal in­dus­try-whose hub, the city of Ka­tow­ice, is set to host the COP24 con­fer­ence on global warm­ing in De­cem­ber.

Feed­ing the smog dragon

Many Poles have lost faith in the abil­ity of in­sti­tu­tions to ad­dress the scourge, in­stead tak­ing mat­ters into their own hands. “In our town of Pszczyna, Poland’s sec­ond most pol­luted city, we have to do some­thing,” said Jan Franek, a 16-year-old mem­ber of a stu­dent group against smog. “Many of our older res­i­dents don’t be­lieve in smog. Ac­cord­ing to them, you can’t see it so it doesn’t ex­ist,” he added while on a visit to War­saw to back an anti-pol­lu­tion pe­ti­tion.

The stu­dent ac­tivists, whose group name plays on the sim­i­lar­ity of the words smog and smok (dragon in Pol­ish) and trans­lates as “Don’t feed the smog”, were on hand when the pe­ti­tion was de­liv­ered to the en­ergy min­istry. Signed by 36,000 peo­ple, the pe­ti­tion launched by Green­peace Poland and lo­cal politi­cians calls on the gov­ern­ment to im­pose strict stan­dards for coal qual­ity.

Mil­lions of Poles heat their homes with of­ten lowqual­ity coal, which is the main source of air pol­lu­tion ahead of cars and in­dus­try. The gov­ern­ment pledged to in­tro­duce coal stan­dards in March 2017 but has yet to do so. The only mea­sure taken by the state has been to ban the sale of old, low-qual­ity boil­ers. But ac­cord­ing to Marek Joze­fiak, co­or­di­na­tor of Green­peace Poland’s cli­mate and en­ergy cam­paigns, “Mod­ern boil­ers aren’t enough if we con­tinue to burn low-qual­ity, pol­lut­ing coal.” The same ap­plies for garbage, which gives off hazardous fumes when burned in coal stoves, still a com­mon prac­tice.

Don’t feed the smog

Pow­er­ful coal lobby Ac­cord­ing to pol­lu­tion watch­dog Pol­ish Smog Alert, part of the prob­lem is that the of­fi­cial pol­lu­tion norm hides the sever­ity of the is­sue. “If we ap­plied the pol­lu­tion thresh­old adopted in France here in Poland, many cities would be in a state of alert for dozens of days, some even for two months out of the year,” says PAS ac­tivist Piotr Siergiej. While PM10 par­ti­cle pol­lu­tion is con­sid­ered dan­ger­ous in Poland from 300 mi­cro­grams per cu­bic me­tre, the thresh­old is 80 mi­cro­grams in France.

The gov­ern­ment has promised no changes in the short term, and green ac­tivists ac­cuse it of be­ing in­flu­enced by the pow­er­ful coal lobby. Tech­nol­ogy Min­is­ter Jad­wiga Emilewicz has voiced con­cern over the high death toll from pol­lu­tion-re­lated ill­nesses, promis­ing that “an im­prove­ment” will be felt within five years. She cites mea­sures in­clud­ing higher coal qual­ity stan­dards, sub­si­dies to help the poor in­su­late their homes, re­place old pol­lut­ing stoves or af­ford clean heat­ing. For Maria, the War­saw mother-ofthree, five years is too long to wait.

“By that point my chil­dren will have breathed in all these mi­cropar­ti­cles that will re­main in their lungs or even their blood,” she said. —

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