Polish Smog Alert: fighting for clean air in the heart of Europe

Anna Dworakowska is a co-founder of Polish Smog Alert.

Clean air is a fundamental human right, as acknowledged by the United Nations’ Clean Air Resolution. Yet, the reality in Poland, one of the most polluted countries in the European Union, tells a different story. Every year, around 40,000 lives, primarily among the elderly, are cut short due to diseases linked to air pollution and poor air quality. While this number has decreased by 10,000 over the past decade, the situation remains dire. Even greater numbers suffer from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases like asthma, which shaves around a year off the life expectancy of an average Polish citizen.

As winter sets in, the challenge of pollution becomes particularly urgent. While the UK turns to central heating, Polish citizens resort to coal and wood burners to warm their homes. These practices create a thick shroud of smog, releasing toxic gases that contain harmful chemicals, such as dioxins, formaldehyde, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. A staggering 78% of PM2.5 particulate pollution in Poland originates from low-power solid fuel boilers, and the country’s ageing car fleet, with over twice the number of cars per 1,000 inhabitants in Warsaw compared to Berlin, exacerbates the problem.

Against this grim context Polish Smog Alert was born. Polish Smog Alert is  a grassroots movement that I helped found in Krakow, together with my two friends Andrzej Gula, and Ewa Lutomska. Over the years, our local impact group has transformed into a national movement, partnering with more than 50 local authorities and campaign groups across Poland.

As a result of Polish Smog Alert’s efforts, there has been a 20% reduction in premature deaths, saving 10,000 lives annually. Additional achievements include banning solid fuel heating in Krakow, prohibiting coal for household heating in the capital, Warsaw, introducing government tax relief for boiler replacement, and launching a subsidy program for thermal house renovations and clean heating, valued at £20 billion. Furthermore, Polish Smog Alert has established the first low-emission zone in Central and Eastern Europe in Krakow.

Using dynamic media campaigns, we are trying to shed light on the hidden perils of polluted air while promoting sustainable, eco-friendly solutions. Tech partnerships are in the works to birth real-time air quality apps, guiding the populace during smog peaks. With an eye on the roads, the activists are championing green transportation – advocating for electric vehicles and improved public transport infrastructure.

Legislative lobbying, too, is on the agenda, aiming for stricter emission standards. We envision a nation powered by clean energy, pushing for a pivot from coal burners to solar and wind. And in the heart of our strategy is the youth, with educational forays planned to sculpt an eco-conscious generation. In the intricate ballet of activism and change, we hope to be a leading dance, orchestrating a cleaner, healthier Poland.

After a decade of tireless advocacy, the Polish Smog Alert team has catalysed significant policy changes, including coal and wood bans for household heating, and the creation of low-emission zones as well as being recognised as a 2023 The Earthshot Prize nominee.

The silent threat that’s targeting our youth

The threat of air pollution isn’t universal and it poses a particular danger for the younger demographic. Why? The simple answer is that young bodies, with their developing organs and evolving immune systems, bear the brunt more severely.

Take for instance common pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and the minuscule yet menacing PM 2.5. While harmful to all, these elements uniquely disrupt the natural growth and functionality of young lungs. The repercussions? A surge in respiratory and cardiovascular ailments, with asthma emerging as a notable adversary, impacting a startling 9% of Europe’s youth.

But the menace of polluted air isn’t limited to children alone. Unborn babies are at risk too. There’s growing evidence linking prenatal exposure to air pollution with complications like low birth weight and a heightened risk of premature births.

A report from the EEA, encompassing 32 nations excluding the UK, Eastern Europe, and Ukraine, offers some daunting statistics. It pegs the premature deaths of those under 18 due to air pollution at over 1,200 annually. While these figures might appear diminutive compared to the staggering 311,000 premature deaths recorded in 2021 across all age groups, the emphasis here is on the profound impact of losing or compromising lives at such a tender age.

Zooming out to the broader populace, air pollution’s fatal dance manifests predominantly as heart disease and stroke, with respiratory issues and lung cancer trailing close behind. The clear message? While air pollution is an indiscriminate killer, our youth, with their futures ahead, are facing a particularly precarious battle.

European air quality crisis

In a concerning revelation from 2021, a staggering 90% of urban dwellers in the EU found themselves ensnared in the clutches of deteriorating air quality. But the real shocker? PM 2.5 exposure, infamous for its severe health repercussions, clocked in at an alarming 97%. This tiny yet potent particulate is notorious for ushering in a suite of health issues from strokes and cancers to respiratory disorders.

Delving into geographical specifics, the haze seems thickest in central-eastern Europe and Italy. Why? The region’s reliance on solid fuels like coal in both domestic and industrial sectors is a prime culprit. Pinpointing ‘hotspots’ with dire air quality, places like Piotrków Trybunalski and Nowy Sacz in Poland, Slavonski Brod in Croatia, and Italy’s Cremona rise to the top of the list.

Moreover, when pitted against WHO’s benchmarks, ozone and nitrogen dioxide concentrations were consistently off the charts across European nations. The Mediterranean and central European regions particularly grappled with elevated ozone levels.

But it’s not all gloom. Cities like Faro in Portugal, along with Umeå and Uppsala in Sweden, emerged as breaths of fresh air, boasting the lowest PM 2.5 averages, making them Europe’s oases amidst the pollution storm.

Poor quality air extends beyond Poland

Polish Smog Alert  would like to emphasise the grassroots momentum that has driven our organisation and underscore the main reasons behind poor air quality in Poland and neighbouring EU countries, highlighting the stark contrast to the UK. Polish Smog Alert’s achievements in improving air quality, implementing unprecedented regulations, and banning coal burning in Warsaw provide valuable lessons for other nations.

The group’s impact is evident in the remarkable reduction in smog days in Krakow, from 140 to just 40. However, the battle is far from over, and we are continuing to push for anti-smog resolutions, coal quality standards, and emission standards for solid fuel boilers. Our relentless efforts are slowly improving air quality, saving lives, and making Poland a cleaner and healthier place to live.

As Eastern Europe grapples with severe air pollution, we intend for Polish Smog Alert’s work to serve as a beacon of hope. The WHO’s guidelines stipulate that PM2.5 levels should not exceed 5 µg/m3 annually, but a new analysis reveals that only 2% of Europeans live within these limits, with the vast majority residing in areas with dangerous air pollution. Urgent action is necessary, as air pollution affects every aspect of human health and well-being.

Tackling air pollution and the  blueprint for a cleaner future

Under the umbrella of the Green Deal, the EU’s Zero pollution action plan sets its sights squarely on mitigating emissions and curbing the menacing air pollution that engulfs the continent. With an ambitious 2030 deadline, the plan is geared towards slashing PM 2.5-linked fatalities by a commendable 55% relative to the statistics from 2005.

While achieving these targets is paramount, immediate attention is crucial, especially when young lives are at stake. Enhancing air quality in educational precincts can be a viable interim solution. Practical measures? Bolstering cycling routes, orchestrating vehicular restrictions or moderated speed zones during school hours, and ensuring clean air zones for outdoor youth activities.

Our organisation’s  journey from a local movement in Krakow to a national force for change is a testament to the power of grassroots activism. Our tireless efforts to combat air pollution and improve the quality of life for the citizens of Poland and beyond are a call to action for nations worldwide to prioritise clean air.



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