Air pollution cocktail threatens Athens

The city’s preparations for next year’s Olympic Games, which have raised dust clouds from one end of the city to the other, have exacerbated what was already a serious air pollution problem, according to scientists. Apart from the steadily increasing number of vehicles in circulation – expected to rise by another 550,000 by the Games, and to peak in 2005 at an incredible 5 million – the dozens of public works necessary for readying the city for the Games has resulted in the continuous production of microparticles which, along with ozone, comprise two of the main pollutants that have made the atmosphere unbearable and harmful to health. At a conference held earlier this week by the Greek Consumers’ Union, Nikos Katsaros, who is head of the Democritus nuclear research center, said that the main origin of airborne particles PM 10, PM 2.5 and PM 1, which contain trace elements, mercury, cadmium, nickel, copper, asbestos, hydrocarbons and sulphur compounds, among others, is car exhaust fumes (a diesel-powered truck produces 200 times more airborne particles than a new car with a catalytic converter), asphalt (particularly when of poor quality), car tires and the material in brakes. Industry, the combustion of diesel or crude oil, as well as the paint from buildings, vehicles, benches and other wooden, metallic or plastic structures that are subject to wear and tear. «At the same time, airborne particles are produced during the construction of public works, particularly at this time when Olympic projects are under way and all sorts of material is being transported in uncovered trucks,» he said. Nor are inspections made of the equipment being used. Ozone and airborne particles should be a matter of concern for the Olympic Games organizers, as it is a known fact that when the weather is fine, these pollutant can stay in the atmosphere for long periods. Ozone is a particularly insidious pollutant, as high concentrations have been observed even when there is little traffic, such as Sundays and public holidays, and especially during summer (the Olympic Games are to be held in August). So although concentrations of «traditional» pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides have been falling steadily in recent years, these newer types such as airborne particles and tropospheric ozone or benzoyl are increasing at an alarming rate. According to Katsaros, concentrations of airborne particles in the atmosphere are not only not increasing but in many cases far exceed the European Union safety limits of 48 micrograms per cubic meter. Athens and Thessaloniki have the dubious honor of topping the list of 19 European cities with the highest concentrations of airborne particles. On many occasions over the past three years, concentrations of this pollutant in both cities has been more than 2.6 times above the EU safety limit, as high as 125 micrograms per cubic meter. As for benzoyl, which is emitted largely during the filling of vehicles’ gasoline tanks with unleaded fuel, concentrations are very high. According to Professor I. Ziomas of the chemical engineering faculty at the National Technical University, since 2000 there has been a law reducing the benzoyl content of unleaded gasoline from 4 percent to 1 percent, although tests done in 2001 showed that there had been no reduction in the atmosphere. Nevertheless, of the 18 stations set up around the city by the Environment Ministry to measure pollution, only two actually detect benzoyl. Ziomas says that the State is obliged to warn people when there are dangerous concentrations of pollutants. A method of forecasting atmospheric pollution has been developed which can function exactly like the weather report. «Forecasts could help people decide, for example, not to go out jogging when there are high concentrations of pollutants, and would also help the authorities take the appropriate measures,» he said. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any cooperation with the weather bureau in providing the information necessary for making the forecasts. ‘Guinea pigs in an experiment’ Residents of Greece’s major cities have become «guinea pigs in an experiment with parameters that no one measures, and therefore with unpredictable consequences,» according to Panayiotis Behrakis, the head of the Greek Society of Pulmonary Medicine. «Our respiratory system is not designed to breathe airborne particles,» he said, adding that the slightest intake of these pollutants has catastrophic effects on health. It is known that in Europe 240,000 people die every year as a result of exposure to airborne particles. «Exposure to pollution, along with smoking, destroys the body’s protective system that rejects solid particles that can be inhaled in the air,» he said. They enter the lungs and then the bloodstream, causing widespread damage to health. An increase in the daily level of airborne particles is linked to an increase in the daily number of deaths by natural causes. Research has shown that these particles are linked to an increase in heart disease. People exposed to these pollutants have the same likelihood of contracting lung cancer as passive smokers. According to Behrakis, exposing children to these pollutants could slow down the growth of the respiratory system. Atmospheric pollution is of course the main cause of the rise in the incidence of asthma in developed countries. According to various studies, on days with heightened levels of smog, there is an increase of 10 percent or more in the number of children taken to hospital with asthma attacks. Professor Paul Nikolopoulos of Athens University’s medical school believes that atmospheric pollution is suspected of being responsible for the increase in premature births, and can also affect sperm quality.