Concentrations of particulate matter PM10 and PM2.5 are again reaching enormous levels in Serbian cities, up to seven times higher than the allowed 50 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3). With that in mind, findings of the latest WHO study on premature deaths caused by air pollution in Serbia don’t come as a surprise. The question, however, is whether citizens or authorities will do something after yet another wake-up call or they will all wait air pollution simply to pass.
This year the situation regarding air pollution in Serbia has started heating up very early. At the end of October, the PM10 levels were up to 10 times higher than allowed. Back then it was clear that we cannot expect anything good with the start of the heating season and the activation of heating plants that use fossil fuels. The problem was postponed by strong winds which blew away the pollution, but not for long.
In the last ten days, the PM10 and PM2.5 levels in Serbian cities have ranged from 50 to almost 350 micrograms per cubic meter. Of course, individual and district heating, as well as fossil fuel-based power generation can be blamed for this situation, together with industrial facilities.
There are hardly any metering points controlled by the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency with data in the green. The air is polluted in larger cities, like Belgrade, Novi Sad, Niš, and Subotica, but also in smaller ones, such as Valjevo, Kosjerić, Šabac, Obrenovac, Smederevo, Pančevo, and Bor. The main pollutant is PM10, as well as PM2.5, while the levels of sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide are in most cases within the allowed limits.
It is not surprising, then, that on December 18 AirVisual, a website and app monitoring air quality worldwide, declared Belgrade the 6th most polluted city in the world.
“PM is capable of penetrating deep into lungs, entering the bloodstream”
One of the authors of the WHO’s Health impact of ambient air pollution in Serbia – A call to action study, Uroš Rakić of the Institute of Public Health of Serbia Dr Milan Jovanović Batut, tells Balkan Green Energy News that air pollution is a major cause of premature death and disease, and is the single largest environmental health risk in Europe (WHO). Heart disease and stroke are the most common reasons for premature death attributable to air pollution, followed by lung diseases and lung cancer.
The health effects of air pollution are well documented in global toxicological, clinical and epidemiological research studies. Health studies have shown a significant association between exposure to particle pollution and health risks, including premature death.
The health risks associated with particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) are especially well documented. PM is capable of penetrating deep into lung passageways and entering the bloodstream causing cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and respiratory impacts. Fine particles (PM2.5) pose the greatest health risk, Rakić says.
In children and adults, both short- and long-term exposure to ambient air pollution can lead to reduced lung function, respiratory infections, and aggravated asthma. Some deaths may be attributed to more than one risk factor at the same time. For example, both smoking and ambient air pollution affect lung cancer. Some lung cancer deaths could have been averted by improving ambient air quality, or by reducing tobacco smoking.
Rakić said that in 2012, International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the WHO, classified diesel engine exhaust as carcinogenic to humans, based on sufficient evidence that exposure is associated with an increased risk for lung cancer.
Over the next 10 years 150,865 years of life will be lost – WHO Study
Between 2010 and 2015 exposure to PM2.5 accounted for 3,585 premature deaths per year (21,510 in total) in 11 Serbian cities – Belgrade, Obrenovac, Lazarevac, Novi Sad, Beočin, Smederevo, Užice, Kosjerić, Niš, Valjevo and Kragujevac, the WHO study finds. The overall health impact of air pollution for the whole of urban areas in Serbia was estimated at 6,394 attributable deaths per year (38,364 in total). Over the next 10 years, 150,865 years of life are expected to be lost due to air pollution if current pollution levels persist, 75,261 of which in Belgrade alone.
The analysis, based on national data and made using the WHO’s AirQ+ software, was conducted by Pierpaolo Mudu (WHO European Centre for Environment and Health, WHO Regional Office for Europe) and Uroš Rakić. The final version of the report was developed in coordination with the ministries of health and environmental protection as well as the Institute of Public Health Dr Milan Jovanović Batut.
PM levels exceed WHO targets
In Serbia, the state-managed system for monitoring air quality showed that the concentrations of air pollutants, particularly PM, in cities regularly exceed the levels recommended in the WHO air quality guidelines.
The average concentrations of PM10 were higher than the WHO interim target 2 (50 µg/m3 ) set in the air quality guidelines for human health protection. For PM10, the WHO interim target 1 is 70 µg/m3, the interim target 2 is 50 µg/m3, the interim target 3 is 30 µg/m3, and the air quality guideline is 20 µg/m3. For example, values ≥ 50 µg/m3 were found in Smederevo in all years in which monitoring was conducted (2010–2013).
The main findings of the analysis for 11 Serbian cities are as follows:
- Exposure to PM2.5 accounts for 3,585 premature deaths per year, including 1,796 in Belgrade. Other health outcomes are linked to exposure to NO2 and O3, although they are not reported here.
- Over the next 10 years, 150,865 YLL due to air pollution are expected if current levels of air pollution persist. Of these, 75,261 YLL will occur in Belgrade.
• The simulation of progressive reductions in current PM2.5 concentrations in different scenarios (by 5, 10 and 20 µg/m3 ) indicates that the number of premature deaths due to air pollution would decrease from 3,585 to 2,737, 1 862 and 301, respectively.
- Similarly, progressive reductions in current PM2.5 concentrations (by 5, 10 and 20 µg/m3 ) would decrease the YLL due to air pollution over 10 years from 150,865 to 114,539, 77,515 and 12,508, respectively.
The overall health impact of air pollution for the whole of the urban areas in Serbia (not just the 11 cities studied in detail) was estimated at 6,394 attributable deaths.
Who is to blame
The main sources of outdoor air pollution in Serbia include the energy sector (thermal power plants, district heating plants and individual household heating), the transportation sector (an old vehicle fleet), waste dump sites and industrial activities (oil refineries, the chemical industry, mining and metal processing and the construction industry).
The specific documented sources of air pollution include:
- the petrochemical industry complex in Pančevo and Novi Sad;
- cement factories in Popovac, Kosjerić and Beočin;
- chemical plants and metallurgical complexes in Smederevo, Sevojno and Bor;
- thermal power plants in Obrenovac, Lazarevac and Kostolac;
- fossil fuel-based individual household heating in periurban and rural towns;
- increasing road traffic, especially in large cities such as Belgrade, Novi Sad and Niš.
This is what we have to do
One group of possible interventions would directly reduce air pollution and exposure:
1. decreasing the use of solid fuels for household heating and cooking;
2. reducing emissions from industrial sites;
3. changing to more sustainable mobility;
4. improving planning to increase the energy efficiency of buildings and make cities greener and more compact;
5. increasing the use of low-emission fuels and renewable combustion-free power sources;
6. implementing strategies for waste reduction, separation, recycling, and reuse;
7. improving communication and awareness of risks.