Pollution Alert as Poland Chokes on Smog
April 6, 2017
Air pollution levels in Poland went through the roof early this year, reminding Polish people the hard way that political tensions and uncertain economic forecasts were not necessarily their biggest problem.
An adverse combination of Poland’s heavily coal-dependent economy, low temperatures and windless weather in January sent air pollution levels high above any acceptable norms, causing local authorities across the country to declare smog alerts for the first time in years. Out of the country’s 180 air pollution monitoring stations, the worst readings were reported in the southern town of Brzeszcze Jan. 26, the smoggiest day this past winter. On that day, the average daily concentration of suspended PM10 particulate matter in the atmosphere reached 427 micrograms per cubic meter, which was 854 percent above the average daily maximum of 50 micrograms recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). The average concentration in Brzeszcze for the entire month of January totaled 202 micrograms, four times the WHO norm.
Under Polish air quality standards, excessive PM10 concentration levels should not occur for more than 35 days a year. Meanwhile, the Brzeszcze station reported 28 such days in January alone. That same month, air pollution in the town rose above the alert mark eight times. It is noteworthy that, at 300 micrograms per cubic meter for daily PM10 concentrations, the mark is set much higher in Poland than in other European countries. Most EU member states have their alert levels set at between 50 and 100 micrograms per cubic meter, following up on the WHO’s 50-microgram recommendation. The Polish alert level was raised from 200 micrograms in 2012 by the then Environment Minister Marcin Korolec.
According to the Polski Alarm Smogowy (Polish Smog Alert) association of local anti-smog organizations, the January record in Brzeszcze serves as evidence that smog in Poland is a problem that reaches beyond big cities to affect residents in thousands of small towns and villages. The European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates that air pollution in Poland kills around 45,000 people a year and shortens the life of the average Pole by nine months.
As the smog problem intensified, Prime Minister Beata Szydło in early January said that the government’s Economic Committee would tackle the issue and come up with “specific measures.” The committee worked out 14 recommendations, including one for an urgent executive order concerning quality standards for solid fuels. A draft regulation for coal was published in early February by the Energy Ministry, but since it provided for very low quality standards, it was harshly criticized by environmentalists.
“We are happy to see the government’s interest in fighting smog,” said Andrzej Guła of the Polish Smog Alert association. “Sadly, this draft order permits the sales of poor quality coal with a high content of moisture, sulfur and ash. We expect the ministry to go on to make corrections to the faulty provisions.”
Meanwhile, Energy Minister Krzysztof Tchórzewski suggested there is no reason coal dust should no longer be used, especially as many heat and power plants are fitted with furnaces suitable for burning such fuel.
Environmental organizations such as ClientEarth and Greenpeace Poland are calling for fuels of the lowest quality, such as coal dust and slack, to be withdrawn from the retail market altogether. The environmentalists are saying that as far as Poland is concerned, fuels of inferior quality that people use to heat their households in winter are the main cause of air pollution and smog. The two organizations have joined others, including the Akcja Demokracja (Operation Democracy) and Miasto Jest Nasze (The City is Ours) associations, to file a complaint with the European Commission’s representation in Warsaw against the Polish authorities past and present.
The organizations are arguing Polish policy makers have for years been negligent about excessive concentrations of toxic benzo(a)pyrene in the air. More than 18,000 people have signed the complaint.
According to the Polska Zielona Sieć (Polish Green Network) environmental organization, the maximum annual number of 35 days with PM10 levels above the norm had been exceeded in 16 Polish cities by mid-February. Using data from provincial environmental inspection authorities, the Polish Green Network has compiled a list of cities and towns where high air pollution levels were recorded the most frequently last winter. The list begins with Krakow, Nowy Targ and Wodzisław Śląski in southern Poland, where air pollutants were in excessive concentrations for 41 of the first 46 days of this year. The situation was only slightly better in Zabrze, Tarnów, Nowy Sącz and Nowa Ruda. The smog “bottom 20” includes eight cities in Śląskie province, five in Małopolskie province and one each in Opolskie, Dolnośląskie and Łódzkie provinces. The 35-day national limit was almost exceeded in Olesno, Kędzierzyn-Koźle, Dąbrowa Górnicza and Mielec (35 days); Wrocław, Jelenia Góra, Kłodzko, Legnica and Ząbkowice Śląskie (34 days); Zakopane, Opole and Kalisz (33 days); Warsaw (31 days); and Poznań (28 days).
The Polish Green Network’s Marek Józefiak says that, despite promises made by Prime Minister Szydło, the government is only keeping up appearances when it comes to fighting smog. An amendment has been drafted to a law on fuel quality monitoring and inspection, complete with several executive orders concerning quality standards for solid fuels. Józefiak describes the Energy Ministry’s proposed regulations on coal quality standards as “a scandal.”
“They will not ban sales of the most harmful fuels such as coal slurry and lignite,” says Józefiak. According to the Energy Ministry, the regulations are meant to restrict imports of unsorted coal to Poland, mainly from countries beyond its eastern border. As of November last year, Poland imported a total of 7.2 million metric tons of coal, most of which (4.6 million metric tons) came from Russia. The new regulations are also designed to put the market for solid fuels in order so as to advise consumers about the kind of coal they are actually buying. The proposed regulations will require producers to present quality specifications for the solid fuels they put on the market.
Particulate matter of the harmful PM10 and PM2.5 kinds is especially dangerous to the respiratory system due to a high content of sulfur, heavy metals and highly toxic organic compounds. Polluted air is a major health risk to people suffering from heart and respiratory diseases and it is also dangerous to senior citizens, children and pregnant women. Health experts advise people against staying outdoors when air pollution levels are higher than normal. The WHO classifies PM2.5 as the most harmful of all air pollutants for its high content of carcinogens such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, including benzo(a)pyrene.
Every year air pollution in Poland claims 45,000 lives and costs the government around PLN 80 billion (EUR 18.5 billion; USD 19.5 billion), experts say. Smog causes Polish people to be more prone to allergies, infections and other respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, doctors warn. Importantly, they say, smog has a negative effect on people’s moods.
According to Prof. Bolesław Samoliński from the Medical University of Warsaw, 3.5 million of Poland’s 5 million single-family houses are energy-inefficient, prompting people who live in them to use anything as heating fuel in winter.
Prof. Andrzej Lekston from the Silesia Heart Disease Center in Zabrze says smog affects human fertility by, for example, lowering the level of testosterone in men and the vitality of their sperm. Children born by mothers living in areas with high air pollution come down with bronchitis and pneumonia three times more often than other children, Lekston adds.
Allergist Andrzej Dąbrowski from the Medical University of Warsaw says that while the number of allergic patients is steadily rising around the globe, the trend mostly occurs in developed countries. The most commonplace allergy-related condition is allergic rhinitis, which in some areas affects up to 40 percent of teenagers.