The furnaces create such a huge amount of pollution and release poisonous substances. People just burn whatever they have. And when the clouds are low, there simply
isn’t any air to breathe. So in the Wawer district of Warsaw we have a group of activists, and we are fighting. We are here to show that we want Warsaw to have cleaner air. Research from Cracow shows that children who breathe polluted air – such as suspended dust particles, aromatic hydrocarbons, nitric oxide – are getting sick 3-4 times more often. So maybe that’s the answer when someone
asks “Why is my kid always getting sick?” 54% of school-age children in Cracow have
asthma or allergies. The average for Poland is 9.6%. Exposure to pollution in the first trimester
of pregnancy is crucial. A lot of kids are being born with low birth
weight, which affects your entire life, because kids born with low birth weight are
more prone to infections and long-term illnesses. So our country promotes having children in
order to make them sick? Maybe we should take care of our air first
so that children can be born in a safe place? If you ask why polluted air is bad for you,
it’s very simple: it’s just like eating contaminated food. In the winter, the radio would say that the
pollution is huge, but when I went outside, I couldn’t even
feel it. And I thought to myself that smog is like
a hidden death. I have a grandson, 3 years old, and we had
to keep him indoors because it wasn’t safe to go out. But so many people need to take their children to kindergarten, nursery, or school and those kids need to be outside. And what if no one heard the warnings? And then there are people who just don’t
care. Why now? Why is this the moment when we started talking about smog? Is it some kind of conspiracy? Or the result of lobbying? Many people asking these questions
because it seems like it came out of nowhere. The topic of air pollution is now as important
as the topic of clean water. We all want to drink clean water and eat healthy food, and air pollution has become part of that conversation. It exploded after the massive smog episode that happened on 9th of January, 2017. It scared us all. Can you predict Inversion before it happens? – Of course you can – it’s very easy. It’s easy to warn people and suggest that
they change their behaviour. For example, you can ask them to limit their emissions. Of course, it’s not easy because when you
have frigid winter nights, people tend to burn more. So it’s like a trap. Last January was a horrible experience for
me. It happened to me for the first time. I knew there was high pollution and I felt
like my freedom was limited. I needed to go outside but that I shouldn’t
because it’s going to hurt me. It was a depressing few days, but if the weather would stay the same, it
could have lasted a whole month! The pollution in Warsaw on January 9, 2017, was 200 micrograms per cubic meter. That’s 4 times the norm – 400%. On the same day in Rybnik and other Polish
cities, they recorded 900% or 1000%. The pollution we had in Warsaw that day – which “alarmed” our society – that level of pollution has been the norm
in southern Poland for many years. It’s a bit sad, but we are talking about
smog now because it came to Warsaw. But it’s a good thing because the government and mainstream media noticed, and now we activists can show them this problem – “This is how bad it looks – even in Warsaw.” Smog is no longer a niche problem for ecologists who are obsessed with their health. Now it’s a problem for anyone who goes outside and they see the grey smoke all around them. I get calls from people who want to deal with this problem – people who are actively looking for solutions. At the beginning, I started to use a monitoring device in the house. One night I went to my kids’ bedroom and saw that the level of PM 2.5 in their room is 100. The safe norm is 25! PM 2.5 are the smallest particles which can go directly into your bloodstream. It’s especially bad for small kids because they breathe faster and have smaller body mass. My main motivation was fear for my family. We live in the Praga area where pollution is quite high, and even when you want to go to the park or to school, you have to go along really busy streets. When my wife was pregnant, I saw the publicly-available pollution data, and at the same time, Warsaw was campaigning to become the “Green Capital of Europe.” It was absurd! The city crossing pollution limits almost everyday wanted an award for being green! The city government in Warsaw didn’t want to admit that there is a smog problem. Only now, after three years of our activism efforts, they are issuing warnings and we can hear declarations about possible solutions. The government should do something. We are fed up with hearing that there is nothing we can do – they say it will take years. But we need to fix it here and now, and we are showing the first steps. We created a map of all the city-owned coal-based furnaces around the city. It’s 2018, we are in a big European capital city, and people are still burning coal to heat their house. There are 1,900 city-owned properties heated by coal. It’s unbelievable. I live in the Praga district, and we have a lot of those burners. I have small children, and I see the smoke everyday. I know it’s not the choice of those people to burn coal. They are doing it because the city hasn’t given them an alternative. And that’s why we are being poisoned. I was at a meeting once with Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, and I remember one thing he said: “People don’t care about who takes care of the roads, water, air, etc. They bring all their problems to the city’s Mayor’s office.” That’s our job – we are the first target that gets hit with residents’ complaints. Any issue that concerns residents – that’s my issue, I care about it, and I fight for it. Do you think smog is a problem in Warsaw?
-Yes, not just in Warsaw, but in the whole country. And do you think the city is doing anything to fix the smog problem? – No. The campaign against smog has only been for about a year, but of course we had smog before that, and no one talked about it. I wish the discussion about smog started earlier, for example in 2013 or 2014. Citizens were not interested in this topic from 2007-12, when we as a city were already working on bringing pollution levels down. People only started to talk about smog when we are already close to meeting the European norms. We used to have 160 days a year when the norms were breached. That was 2010 and earlier. We started measuring in 2006, so we don’t even know how bad things were before then. Today it’s down to 80 days, but look what’s happening. Most of the levels are going down. But the closer we get to achieving the norms, the harder it is to reach the goal and it seems like not much has changed for the last 2-3 years. But it’s not a failure. It’s like beating the record in the 100-metre dash. The closer you get to the record, the harder it gets to improve. Let’s be frank – the subject of air quality only came up in the past year. The pollution levels have been going down, but now our society’s awareness has grown. I’m engaged in something that you can call Christian Ecology. Next to academic activities, we try to promote subjects that are important for the social teachings of the church. The classic definition of sin is “a conscious and voluntary act that crosses moral values in an important matter.” If an act is voluntary and conscious – and that act creates toxic pollution which poisons other people, it is a sin. We are harming ourselves, other people – especially the most vulnerable, children. It’s why we have so many children experiencing asthma and allergies in this generation. We didn’t change that much as a species between generations. If there is an effect, there is a cause – and we know the cause, but sometimes we run away from the simple truth. We know there are at least 20,000 registered old-generation coal-based furnaces in Warsaw. But some furnaces are not registered, so there might be even 25,000. If all of these furnaces are burning on the same day in January, it will pollute the entire city – just like it happened in January 2017. It’s not easy to change peoples’ minds and explain to them that something they had in their house for many years is poisoning them. On some level, they have to admit that they have been doing something wrong for a long time. When there is no wind, it’s much worse. So there’s definitely something in the air today. Do you think the norms are breached today?
– If it’s not breached, then it’s on the border. – Ok, let’s see – I have a measuring device. The norm for PM 2.5 is 25. It’s 80. Great. So we shouldn’t breathe now! – It’s like we have stones in our lungs!
– It’s the smallest stones entering our bloodstreams! You should take that device to the Bialolenka district, but I’m not sure if your device has enough scale to measure it! They burn everything there – plastic bottles, old furniture. If you go there at night, you don’t need a device. You can feel it in the air – pure ecology! If you could compare this year and last year – the number of phone calls and interventions the city is doing. Is the situation changing? Yes, it’s changing. Residents are more and more aware. It’s changing because we are talking about the dangers of smog – what are the health risks and consequences. So awareness is growing. It’s around 50-60% more calls and tips from residents than in 2016. It’s also connected to the intense information campaign the city is doing. Every day we get around 1500 phone calls minimum – but there are some days when we get more. During the heating season, the calls related to people burning garbage are much more frequent. I’ve been working for the city for 25 years, and in this environmental protection department for 2 years. This department was just created in 2016. During our checks, I’d say about 90 percent of cases we find nothing wrong, and 10 percent we find something wrong. We do a lot of these checks – at the beginning, the results were much worse, but now people know that we do these checks and behaviours are beginning to change. At the beginning, we would find many different things those furnaces – – tires, furniture, lacquered window frames, used oils, plastic, etc. It was anything you could fit into the furnace. I’m sure it was worse a few years ago, but we didn’t have these controls and no one measured. We only started a couple years ago. Where are we now?
– We are in the Bialolenka district… and the result isn’t so great. We have 229 micrograms per cubic meter. And what is the norm in Poland?
– Between 20 and 40 is pretty okay. We looked inside the furnace and found wood and coal – so everything is okay. The household is segregating garbage, they have special containers – so it’s all being done correctly. How is it possible that we have 5x the safe norms if everything is being done correctly? Is there too much coal in this area?
– Exactly. The levels are so high because we’re in an area with mainly individual houses burning coal and wood. You don’t have to burn garbage to get those results. Specifically in Poland, where the pollution is so high, checking whether we are burning better or worse-quality fuels is not a solution to the problem. We have to be honest that the main problem is burning wood and coal – and burning garbage is just a cherry on top. They light a fire just to save a few bucks – but fireplaces aren’t meeting safe norms, and the pollution they create is harming everyone, including the owners of the fireplaces. So what can we do? – We need to change how people heat their homes – from coal to city heating or gas furnaces. Right now it’s over 900 micrograms of PM 2.5. Let’s see what happens when we step outside. In just a few seconds we’ve gone from 900 to about 70, and it keeps going down. Of course I’m a bit worried, but it’s not always like that. The worst is when you start the fire, and I’m not always in the house after I light it. If they will ban coal furnaces, they need to present some alternative. Because what am I supposed to do? Freeze to death? Most people can’t afford a gas-based furnace. Old people can’t even afford their medications, so they won’t make that kind of investment. I’ve been doing this business for 35 years, and now suddenly everybody has such high expectations. Somebody comes here and asks you to stop using coal? Is that what you mean? – Not exactly – they just call the municipal police. They come to me, they check what I’m burning, etc. They basically have to check if I’m burning garbage because that’s what neighbors accuse me of. People watch TV, they hear about smog on the news. They hear that people burn garbage. I burn 120 tons of coal every year, so why would I burn garbage? I use the best-quality coal on the market. It’s just the most efficient for my business. With better-quality coal I need only 4 truckloads instead of 10. That’s the nature of our business. It’s not a complicated technology. My profits have dropped a few hundred percent since the communist era. On a relative scale, I used to be able to sell my flowers for much more than I can sell them now. So there’s absolutely no chance I will change to a gas-based heating system. Even now it’s difficult to make ends meet. And this is just one aspect of smog. Everybody knows that in places with no industrial activities there is huge pollution from cars. Our government, our laws – are stimulating people to cut the particulate filters from their cars. What is DPF? It’s a filter on diesel vehicles that limits the amount of diesel particulate matter from being released. The problem with this device is that every so often the clogged filter needs to be “burned off” when driving outside the city. But many people driving in the city don’t do that. So the filter gets clogged, and the easiest way to solve the problem is to cut it off. As a result, pollution flows freely out of the car. You can easily find advertisements from workshops offering to cut your filter for you. Let the pollution flow! This is like a criminal activity. And no one seems to care. The problem with diesel is that we don’t know exactly which car has the filter removed. We can’t see exactly what’s coming out of the tailpipe. – and it’s terrible things coming out of there. The filter is there for a reason! The filter is also an expensive device, full of precious metals, and it can cost thousands. So the person who cuts it off can re-sell it. And everyone profits from the situation except the people who have to breathe that air! When a city is big, and the main attractions are in the city center, you need to get there somehow. The wider the borders expand, people living on the outskirts will need to get to the city center by car. And what does a car do – especially a diesel-engine car? It pollutes the air. It’s these everyday choices that nobody thinks about – like the decision to move outside to the suburbs where we can relax and have clean air. We don’t think about the people left living in the city center. The amount of cars we have in Warsaw! Around 1 million cars every day – and we know that 8 years ago there were 3x less cars. It’s connected to the rapid growth of our city. Growth is fantastic, but the legal regulations and our habits haven’t caught up. Every day I stand on John Paul II Avenue waiting for a tram. There are 3 lanes of traffic on both sides, and we just breathe car exhaust. Warsaw’s biggest pollution problem is from traffic, and we expect it will get worse. We are getting richer as a society. So there are more cars – especially because having a car is seen as a status symbol. It is seen as prestigious to have two cars in the family. Poles love driving. The number of cars per 1,000 citizens in Warsaw is 2x more than in Berlin. People are still in denial – they say “So you think I should I never drive a car again?” When I start talking about smog from cars, people get aggressive. People are so attached to their cars that it’s hard for them to believe they are causing the problem. For years we’ve been talking about Diesel Asthma – a constant inflammation in the respiratory system. It is caused by particles coming out of diesel engines. It affects people living near main arteries of transportation – a huge part of the population, living next to big roads. 50-150 meters from those roads – those people are the most at risk. They can cough for no reason, they can have breathing problems for no reason. There are so many cars – so much pollution. We breathe what he have around us. You can hear it in my voice – I have soot in my throat! Since the problem is being solved faster in Western Europe – for example there are more restrictions on diesel cars – we are expecting that older diesels banned from Western Europe will be imported to Poland and they will be cheaper and more people will be able to afford them. One third of the traffic in our city center is generated by people looking for parking. We can see it on every street – cars parked everywhere, it’s hard to find a spot. And what is the city doing about it? They decided to spend an additional 200 million on underground parking in the city center, which will only encourage more people to drive! Often a person who has lived by a busy road for years comes to us and they don’t just have asthma. They have chronic lung disease – which is irreversible and life-threatening. Life expectancy for this person is 10-15 years shorter. It doesn’t need to be like this. I’ve met young people in the hospital who despite the smog warnings were jogging every day. People with healthy hearts suddenly had arrhythmia. They never had health problems before, but the arrhythmia could last for even 3 days before we were able to stabilize them. They thought the smog doesn’t affect them – this just shows that a certain level of pollution can harm even young and healthy people. Every person gets sick in a different way, which is determined by our genetic code. Not everyone will react the same way to the same air. Just because you’re not coughing now, it doesn’t mean you’re okay, because maybe later you’ll have a stroke. Poland loses 15 million working days per year due to the effects of air pollution. Sick leave, early retirement related to poor health, etc. – 15 million working days lost. I find it very sad that there are no regular lessons about ecology in our schools. It should be a standard subject. We spend billions on infrastructure projects in Poland – stadiums, airports – and at the same time we have the dirtiest air in the EU, thousands are dying early because of smog, and many sicknesses being developed because of the pollution. People are afraid to go outside with their kids because the air is so bad. Let’s solve this basic problem by using a fraction of the money that they want to spend on that airport. Let’s get our priorities straight. The real change will happen when society demands it. The government and politicians will have to do much more concrete actions than making promises and then providing solutions which are far from solving the problem. Money and technology are not the problem. People blame a lack of regulations, but that’s not true. There is a law against cutting the DPF filter – and it isn’t followed. I can’t understand the behavior of someone who burns a plastic bottle in his furnace and says, “That’s just one bottle. What harm does it do to the environment?” And unfortunately a lot of people think this way. I think the biggest problem is the lack of knowledge. It means some people don’t care at all, but it also makes other people over-react in panic. If we want to have clean air in our cities, we need to expect more from ourselves. Limit our use of cars, furnaces, etc. It’s a very simple plan. But if we know that there will be smog tomorrow, the city will not be able to stop it. There is nothing we can do. This will take years. If we were talking 24 months ago, I would never expect we’d be in this position. We have 7 regions planning to pass anti-smog regulations, and we have a law that will ban the sale of the worst-quality furnaces. Two years ago I wouldn’t expect that. A year ago, a lot of these regulations and the public’s awareness simply didn’t exist. Today we can see smog alarms in Warsaw, so the awareness is growing rapidly. Even the government seems to notice the problem. It gives me hope and strength. I became a grandmother four years ago, and I care very much about my grandchildren’s health and their future. I would like to know that their adult lives will be better – and this includes having better air quality.