Air pol­lu­tion: a silent but ef­fec­tive killer

Malta Independent - - News -

It is a fright­en­ing thought that there is a silent killer out there, prac­ti­cally im­per­cep­ti­ble but which is claim­ing hun­dreds of Mal­tese lives ev­ery year, and the rate is ris­ing. And yet while we are able to iden­tify the cul­prit, we seem to be un­able to iden­tify the cause.

That silent killer is the plague of air pol­lu­tion, and it is claim­ing more lives than ever be­fore on the Mal­tese Is­lands. Ac­cord­ing to the Euro­pean En­vi­ron­ment Agency, that num­ber stood at 270 at last count in 2016.

And what is per­haps even more fright­en­ing is the fact that that num­ber is ris­ing ev­ery year – from 220 pre­ma­ture deaths in Malta caused by air pol­lu­tion back in 2012 to 250 in 2014 and to 270 in 2016.

That num­ber could eas­ily grow to 300 by the end of this year given the tra­jec­tory and the fact that pol­lu­tion lev­els are ap­par­ently ris­ing in line with the amount of cars on our roads. Other fig­ures have shown how Malta saw the Euro­pean Union’s high­est in­crease in car­bon diox­ide emis­sions in the whole of the Euro­pean Union over the course of last year.

Malta recorded the EU’s high­est in­crease in CO2 emis­sions, at 12.8 per cent, dur­ing a year in which the coun­try switched over to im­ported en­ergy through an in­ter­con­nec­tor to the Euro­pean grid and which has trans­formed its gen­er­a­tion from heavy fuel oil to the far more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly nat­u­ral gas.

Some­thing is not adding up and the En­vi­ron­ment and Re­sources Au­thor­ity’s ex­pla­na­tions be­hind the cause have not ad­dressed the cen­tral ques­tion be­ing asked. How did car­bon diox­ide emis­sions grow by heads and shoul­ders over the growth rates among its Euro­pean last year, when the vast ma­jor­ity of car­bon diox­ide emis­sions come specif­i­cally from the burn­ing of fos­sil fu­els such as nat­u­ral gas and oil for en­ergy pro­duc­tion?

But the ERA, which has writ­ten to this news­pa­per in the past about this par­tic­u­lar par­tic­u­late, fo­cuses on PM10 emis­sions which, in ad­di­tion to CO2 emis­sions, is a silent killer.

Traf­fic is the pri­mary source of man­made PM10 emis­sions in Malta, but the ERA has in­sisted that that over the last five years, none of the air mon­i­tor­ing sta­tions across the coun­try have ex­ceeded the limit val­ues man­dated by na­tional and Euro­pean Union leg­is­la­tion.

In terms of size and pop­u­la­tion den­sity, Malta com­pares more to a ma­jor city within Europe than to a whole Euro­pean state with ex­panses of open spa­ces. And, be­ing a small is­land with sig­nif­i­cant ex­po­sure to sea salt aerosols, our geo­graphic lo­ca­tion in close prox­im­ity to North Africa and in par­tic­u­lar to the Sa­hara needs also to be taken into con­sid­er­a­tion.

Such unique cir­cum­stances, when it comes to PM10, must be taken into ac­count when one reads re­ports such as that pub­lished by the Euro­pean En­vi­ron­ment Agency, mak­ing

Malta ap­pear to per­form ‘worse’ than other coun­tries which do not suf­fer from sim­i­lar geo­graph­i­cal speci­fici­ties and cli­matic con­di­tions.

But since we in Malta are fac­ing these ex­tra Sa­ha­ran and sea spray-in­duced pol­lu­tion risks, we must ask whether we should not be tak­ing ex­tra pre­cau­tions against re­lated types of pol­lu­tion, such as that from car ex­haust when stuck in traf­fic, which we are ac­tu­ally in a po­si­tion to con­trol – such as traf­fic con­ges­tion and how we are us­ing our en­ergy mix from the three op­tions avail­able, from most pol­lut­ing to the clean­est: BWSC, Elec­tro­gas and the in­ter­con­nec­tor.

One ex­pla­na­tion for Malta’s dra­matic rise in car­bon diox­ide pol­lu­tion could be that the govern­ment has been us­ing the BWSC power plant more than we know, which is far costlier than the nat­u­ral gas fired power sta­tion and the in­ter­con­nec­tor – both in mon­e­tary terms as well as in terms of pub­lic health.

In fact, be­fore the new LNG-fu­elled power plant had been com­mis­sioned, it had been re­ported that Ene­malta had been mak­ing lib­eral use of the BWSC plant, even though it had, once upon a time, been dubbed a ‘can­cer and asthma fac­tory’ by Prime Min­is­ter Joseph Mus­cat.

Air pol­lu­tion is an is­sue that we cit­i­zens can­not take in our own hands. This is not an ail­ment that can be pre­vented by ex­er­cise, healthy eat­ing and life­styles – it is an ail­ment that is foisted upon us, and it is one that any re­spon­si­ble govern­ment ab­so­lutely must find an­swers to.

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