What’s the deal with smog

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It looks like fog and it smells like smoke (hence the portmanteau), and in Poland, it used to be associated with the basin-occupying city of Kraków. Then, on January 9, due to alarming levels of smog, Warsaw city council announced public transport will be free for a day, a measure one Wyborcza pundit compared to trying to stop arterial haemorrhage with an elephant-printed plaster. Stay indoors, the council said. The media went into overdrive with smog-related news. Some one put a face mask on the Warsaw Mermaid statue.

air visual map 15012017
AirVisual air pollution globe as of 10 pm on Jan 15, 2015

The culprits are many, and the low temperature is an enabler. Cars, turns out, are not even close to main source of smog, accounting for about a dozen percent, depending on the area (they compensate by contributing to damaging levels nitrogen oxides instead). Some changes in city topography, such as developers’ take over of the city’s air corridors, might be responsible, but there is no reliable data on which to asses their effects. The corridors are kept according to plans predating World War II, and their relevance for current situation is disputed.

The core of the problem, as it often happens, is as much social as it is physical or topographical. According to what Warsaw’s vice-president – yes, we have thosetold the NYT, 20% of Warsaw’s households are not connected to the city heating network. This means that over 150,000, mostly destitute homes are on their own when Siberian blaze hits the city. They use furnaces filled with low-cost heating material, such as wood, coal, and garbage. A cold winter came, and the monitoring stations spit out red until it turned purple.

This is hardly a novelty for organisations such as Polish Smoke Alarm, thought they must be pleased with public’s opinion sudden interest in what has been their case for years. Last September, the World Health Organisation published its own air pollution estimates and placed 33 of EU’s 50 most polluted cities in Poland. In 2015 EU took Poland to court over the persisting air pollution problem.

Warsaw’s smog results have been in the red for at least two and a half years. The sudden part of the equation is the city council publicity, perhaps hitting back at the Polish health minister, who called smog a “theoretical problem” earlier this year. The other thing is the smell, as if one took a deep breath in an underground parking lot, reminding us of the PM10 and 2.5 that are hitting our lungs – equivalent of 1000 cigarettes a year for an average Varosovian. But it is impossible to tell now, if it has not been here all along.

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