Smog from fireplaces in Greek cities causes political headache

The smog created when unfavorable weather conditions meet an increased use of fireplaces to warm homes became a political, as well as environmental, issue on Monday, with the government coming under pressure from its own MPs to reduce the tax on heating oil.

Multiple warnings were issued over the past few days with regard to the high levels of air pollution in Athens, Thessaloniki and other major Greek cities as a result of households burning wood to stay warm rather than using expensive heating oil.

In some places, air pollution briefly exceeded 150 mg/m3, which the government last week set as a the trigger level at which it would offer free electricity to poor households.

The Athens Medical Association warned people to take care about what they burn in their fireplaces and called on the government to create a more comprehensive policy to deal with the problems people have in heating their homes.

On Sunday, the Health Ministry warned the elderly and asthma sufferers that smog levels in Athens and other urban areas were at dangerous levels due to weather conditions and the high number of people burning wood to stay warm. The Health and Environment ministries had issued a statement on Saturday night asking households to limit the use of fireplaces to prevent the buildup of smog.

These developments prompted 41 New Democracy MPs, about a third of the party’s total lawmakers, to table a question in Parliament about the possibility of dropping the tax on heating oil, which was raised to the same as vehicle fuel last year to combat smuggling.

In an interview with To Vima newspaper on Sunday, Alternate Finance Minister Christos Staikouras suggested that reducing the tax would increase the consumption of heating oil but that the troika had not been convinced of this.

The 41 lawmakers, all but three of whom represent rural constituencies, cited a study by the IOBE think-tank showing heating oil consumption has dropped by about three-quarters since 2009. In terms of revenues from heating oil tax, the government was more than 200 million euros behind its target at the end of November.

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