Air pollution: a silent but effective killer
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.