Air pollution is directly responsible for up to one in five premature deaths in 19 Western Balkan cities, suggest preliminary results from a report led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment). Today is World Environment Day, the UN’ most important day for celebrating the environment, and the theme to the 2019 edition is ‘Beat Air Pollution’.
According to UN Environment website, preliminary findings from the ‘Air Pollution and Human Health: The Case of the Western Balkans‘ report shows that the sum total number of premature deaths directly attributable to air pollution in the cities is nearly 5,000 a year. In seven of the cities studied, air pollution is responsible for at least 15% of premature mortality, and 19% in Tetovo, in North Macedonia.
The report analyzed data from Korca, Banja Luka, Brod, Prijedor, Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica, Bar, Nikšić, Pljevlja, Podgorica, Tivat, Bitola, Skopje, Tetovo, Beograd, Pančevo Užice and Valjevo.
The effect of air pollution on human health was calculated using AirQ+ software developed by the World Health Organisation. It is estimated that the number of deaths would be much greater if all relevant data were available for analysis.
On average, people living in the Western Balkans lose up to 1.3 years of life to air pollution. Levels of particulate matter – which comes from dust, soot, and smoke and is strongly linked to cardiovascular diseases – can be over five times higher in the region than World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, the study reveals.
Average concentrations of PM2.5 particulate matter in all but one of the 19 cities studied exceeded the WHO guideline level of 10 μg/m3. A daily PM10 limit of 40μg/m3 set out under national legislation was found to be exceeded between 120 and 180 days a year – especially during winter. In comparison, European Union member states are not permitted to breach this level for more than 35 days a year.
The main sources of particulate matter emissions are thermal power plants (TPPs) that use low-quality lignite coal and household heating. More than 60% of people living in the Western Balkans use solid fuels such as coal and firewood to heat their homes, with only 12% of buildings connected to district heating systems.
Solutions for reducing air pollution must, therefore, include alleviating energy poverty by making modern clean energy more accessible, the report underlines.
Average household expenditure on electricity in Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo (under UNSCR 1244/99), North Macedonia and Albania meets or exceeds the energy poverty line. Measures to ban old polluting vehicles and introduce clean transport alternatives are needed.
The report also calls for more stringent regulations on industrial emitters and restrictions on coal TPPs. There are currently 15 active coal-fired power plants in the Western Balkans.
The study is produced with support from the Government of Norway.
BiH improves its air quality monitoring capacity
“Last winter, I wanted to make snowmen and snowballs, but we couldn’t go outside. We must sometimes wear masks or scarves over our faces,” said 9-year old Sarah Kaidić, of the Isak Samokovlija school in Sarajevo, BiH, during a World Environment Day press field trip. “I am very angry at people who run giant factories – they don’t care about anyone’s health,” said her classmate Arijan Haverić.
“We need to pay attention to the different types of air pollution and their health consequences,” said pulmonologist and allergologist Zehra Dizdarević, who treats patients for lower and upper respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and pneumonia.
“We are supporting businesses that use renewable energy,” said BiH’s Federal Environment and Tourism Minister, Edita Đapo. The country also wants to help people living in the hills in the city outskirts to access cleaner and affordable energy, she explained.
BiH has considerably improved its air quality monitoring capacity.
“Six or seven years ago, we could only monitor two types of data per day. Today, on an hourly basis, we have 60 different results,” said Enis Omerčić, air quality specialist at the Federal Hydro-Meteorological Institute, in Sarajevo.
UN Environment has helped by procuring and maintaining monitoring stations and has contributed to the creation of a national air quality index.
‘Sarajevo Air’ app launched
In Sarajevo, a new mobile phone app commissioned by UN Environment has been launched to help citizens avoid air pollution while walking or cycling.
The ‘Sarajevo Air’ app calculates the lowest pollution route between any two points in the city. Estimated levels of PM10, PM2.5, nitrogen dioxide, ozone pollution and the time required are shown for each route.
“People may always have suspected that there are roads that are more polluted than others. We are now making the invisible visible,” said Andrew Grieve of Kings College London, who developed the app, which is now available free of charge for Android and Apple.
An event was meanwhile held in Sarajevo to mark World Environment Day and show the need to fight air pollution. There, Grammy Award-winning music producer Sadaharu Yagi, Italian music artist Federico Ferrandina and compatriot singer Azzurra performed a stirring ambient rock song they especially produced for the Day.
The track, ‘We are walking on,’ “is about our future, our health, our planet,” said Azzurra.
The song verses were written by Italian-Canadian lyricist and playwright Clea Scala. Los Angeles-based film writer and director Puja Maewal produced the music video. The song is available for airing.