The blanket of smog that has covered Athens and Attica in general since the start of the winter is steadily rising above acceptable limits and posing a serious health hazard in the long term, potentially leading to serious illnesses and chronic medical conditions. Experts are ringing the alarm bells, demanding measures to rid the skies of Athens and other big Greek cities of this toxic shroud.
A recent conference organized by the University of Athens's postgraduate department on the environment and health focused on the buildup over the past few months of smog over populated areas, with scientists pointing out that recent measurements in Attica found that all six monitoring stations in the region had recorded well above the acceptable maximum level of 50 micrograms of small airborne particles (PM10 and less) per cubic meter of air. In Lykovrisi the reading was 236 mg/m3, on Aristotelous Street 219, in Piraeus 168, in Aghia Paraskevi and Thrakomakedones 193, and in Maroussi 96 mg/m3.
The situation in early February was exacerbated by a cloud of dust from North Africa, but experts warn that despite the additional pollution, the numbers should be causing grave concern among health authorities.
For the entire two-month period covering December 2012 and January 2013 the average pollution level recorded in Athens was above the 50mg/m3 limit, when this limit should only be exceeded by a maximum of 35 days a year.
Alexandros Papayiannis, a professor at the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA), noted that pollution in Attica over the past few months has also been consistently above the European Union's maximum average of 40mg/m3 of small airborne particles for the entire year. He also noted that at night, when people tend to increase the amount of heating used in their homes, pollution levels soared to 70mg/m3, providing more evidence that the increase in air pollution is directly linked to the way Greeks are heating their homes this year and not to the use of cars, which has declined.
According to the experts, the most worrying aspect of the smog over Greek cities is that there is a high level of tiny particles about a quarter smaller than the average limit of PM10, which are inhaled deeper into the human body as we breathe.
Emmanuella Remountaki of the NTUA says that the PM2.5 particles have been found to be way above their maximum limit (25mg/m3), reaching concentrations as high as 43mg/m3. The composition of these particles is also significant, Remountaki stresses, as it is not just restricted to regular dust but also contains a large quantity of chemical substances containing sulfur and nitrogen, as well as heavy metals and carbons, among others. The percentage of dust is normally 3-5 percent, the scientists says, though it can exceed 10 percent when dust blows in from Africa.
Meanwhile, Papayiannis also noted that the increased use of unsuitable materials for fuel in fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, such as lacquered wood or paper, produces mercury, which is highly toxic.
The effects of elevated pollution levels on children was noted by Chrysa Tzoumaka-Bakoula, a pediatrics clinic chief at Athens University. Research conducted abroad, she said, has shown that children living in high pollution areas are more prone to illness, adding that Greek hospitals have seen a rise in admissions of children with pollution-related complaints such as respiratory infections. Doctors also warn of the effect of pollution on embryos, saying that it can contribute to congenital defects.
What can be done? Papayiannis stressed the need for an awareness campaign educating the public about the dangers of burning uncertified fuels and aiming to curb the use of fires as a source of heating. He also proposes a reduction in the cost of heating oil and greater promotion of natural gas in order to encourage people to use these fuels to heat their homes.
Breathing polluted air for a long period of time can lead to problems with the cardiovascular system, asthma, reduced lung capacity and chronic bronchial problems, causing coughing and shortness of breath, according to Polyxeni Nikolopoulou-Stamati, the head of Athens University's environment and health postgraduate program.
The most dangerous thing about pollution, she said, is that is has a gradual, insidious effect on the body, as the airborne particles not only settle in the lungs, but also circulate throughout the system, affecting both tissue and cells. As one example, she cites studies that have shown a much greater degree of deterioration in the nasal passages of city dwellers compared to people who live in rural areas with clean air.
Also a member of the National Council for Public Health, Nikolopoulou-Stamati said that she has already sent stern warnings to the Health Ministry to address the issue of increased pollution through more research and public awareness campaigns.