Worn-out catalytic converters a menace

Over half a million cars in circulation in Attica churn out dangerous pollutants due to spent catalytic converters. Cars with worn-out catalytic converters emit carcinogenic benzole and other harmful substances, largely due to an inadequate system of control and inspection and the indifference of many drivers. The market is also plagued with sales of dummy catalytic converters. «We estimate that, on average, at least 500,000 cars in Attica and another 200,000 in the rest of Greece need to change their catalytic converters,» said Costas Kalpadakis, the director of the company that collects and recycles catalytic converters. Instead of curbing pollution, as intended, the catalytic converter has in fact become a source of pollution. Catalytic-equipped cars replaced vehicles running on highly toxic leaded gas but once the catalytic converter wears out, benzole and other pollutants are again emitted into the atmosphere. Special treatment required «In Attica today there are about one-and-a-half-million catalytically converted cars. Over half of these should have been inspected or had their catalytic converters changed,» highlighted Kalpadakis. The first generation of catalytic converters that have been in circulation since the early 90s are even less durable than the more modern ones. «On the basis of our data, only 150,000 cars have changed catalytic converters,» said Kalpadakis, a move based on a feeling of good will rather than obligation. The recent generation of catalytic converters has been upgraded but this does not make them safe. «Despite recent improvements, the converter requires special treatment. The catalytic muffler undergoes thermal and mechanical fatigue. Correct maintenance of the engine is required and overheating and overloading the car must be avoided. In the traffic conditions that prevail in Athens and Thessaloniki, the wear and tear is rapid,» said Sakis Tsioutras, a researcher at the Transport Institute in Thessaloniki. Considerable damage is also caused by adulterated fuels. In this case, the catalytic converter is poisoned and then poisons. How can a malfunction in the catalytic converter be detected? First the exhaust emissions are inspected. However, the exhaust control card, in the past at least, used to be issued over the phone. Today the service garages are more careful as the fines are hefty. Many vehicle owners simply do not procure a card nor do they visit the Vehicle Inspection Centers (KTEO) where a problem can be detected. Research conducted by the Thessaloniki Technical Institute revealed that 40 percent of cars have not been inspected, and 42 percent have not procured an exhaust emission control card. In Attica, the situation is much worse as 700,000 vehicles have never had their MOT test. Road inspections are completely inadequate and responsibility lies with the Public Works Ministry (YPEHODE), which has only 24 mobile control units in all of Athens. The inspections are, literally speaking, indicative as no more than 10,000 vehicles are inspected a year, that is, 40 vehicles per working day for all the service crews. The tests themselves are revealing: In 2005, 26 percent of the vehicles tested had polluting engines. Only one in eight polluting cars has an exhaust emissions card. «It’s necessary for the YPEHODE service crews to increase inspections,» highlighted Kalpadakis. «We also suggested that the traffic police request the emissions card in addition to driving license, insurance and car permit when conducting controls.» For catalytic cars sold over the last couple of years the state of affairs is better, as free service is offered for several years. «Modern electronic systems can detect immediately whether the catalytic converter is not functioning properly.» At authorized service stations it is difficult for a problem in the catalytic converter to go undetected,» said Yiannis Ziomas, a National Technical University of Athens professor in chemical engineering. What happens though when the free service ends? «Replacement of a converter requires special care as 80 percent of the imitation converters on the market have not received accreditation from the Transport Ministry,» said Kalpadakis. Their prices reveal their lack of quality; they cost as little as 30 euros. «It costs that much to buy a used catalytic converter for recycling. Imagine the exhaust they must churn out and how durable they are.» Many retailers acquire accreditation for two types of catalytic converters and sell another 20. Even here inspections are totally inadequate. A converter from an authorized dealer costs between 400 and 1,200 euros, depending on the car type, whereas accredited imitation converters cost no more than 250 euros. As regards the recycling of catalytic converters, chaos reigns. No one knows where they go after use. Every service garage must have a book where the distribution of converters is registered. «It is obligatory for these books to be procured exclusively from specially authorized companies with converters, which then send the books to special units in Germany,» said Kalpadakis. «Unfortunately, there are no books and no controls and the market is infested with various types, often foreign. If this state of affairs continues unchecked then the authorized companies will close.»