When it comes to air pollution, Poland is the China of Europe

An anti-smog mask for the Warsaw mermaid, the city’s symbol.
An anti-smog mask for the Warsaw mermaid, the city’s symbol.
Image: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
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It’s getting harder to breathe in Poland’s capital without inhaling a burned kind of stench, and so Warsaw residents are taking a cue from those living in the world’s most polluted cities and putting on anti-smog masks. The city registered levels of air pollutants so bad over the weekend that local authorities made public transit free on Monday, Jan. 9 to limit local emissions.

The levels of air pollutants registered in the city reached on Sunday a whopping 437 micrograms per cubic meter (link in Polish)—the 24-hour average norm established by the EU being 50. In Paris officials declare a “smog alarm” at 80 micrograms per cubic meter.

The Air Quality Index, an international measure that calculates the levels of harmful pollutants such as carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide in the air, registered 176 in some parts of Warsaw. In comparison, the average for Beijing was 196 on the same day. On Tuesday, New York’s level was at 32, and London’s at 71. Warsaw city authorities urged people to stay home if they could.

Unlike most of Europe, Poland is a coal-burning country. Coal is not only the main energy source, generating more than 80% of its electricity, but it’s also still used, along with other cheap materials including trash, to heat homes in the winter—hence the worsening smog when temperatures drop. The right-wing government currently in power has emphasized the importance of the fossil fuel industry for the country’s labor market, and plans on protecting the sector rather than making significant shifts toward renewable energy.

Warsaw is far from Poland’s worst city when it comes to air quality. A staggering 33 out of the 50 most polluted cities in Europe are in Poland, according to the World Health Organization; people in the industrial south of the country have been living in dangerous levels of smog for years.

The pollution in Krakow, a historical city and Poland’s top tourist destination, has created serious health problems for the city’s residents including respiratory diseases such as asthma, and circulatory and heart issues. Like Warsaw, Krakow also made its public transport free on Jan. 9 (link in Polish). While in Poland’s capital, residents usually have to order their anti-smog masks online, in Krakow they are available at many of the city’s sports equipment or medical and orthopedic equipment stores, according to a manufacturer of anti-smog masks interviewed by Warsaw cultural news website WawaLove.