New kind of smog

Reports that Athens’s atmospheric pollution has been decreasing in recent years appear to have been mistaken, according the results of the annual report by the Environment Ministry’s environmental quality department, accompanied by statements from officials and experts. The choking fumes of the 1980s are a thing of the past as a result of steps taken to improve the quality of gasoline and heating fuel that greatly reduced levels of carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and lead in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, however, they have been replaced by new pollutants which, although invisible, are no less hazardous. Nitrogen dioxide, ozone, airborne particles and worrying increases in the concentrations of benzene comprise a threatening cocktail of toxins floating in the Attic sky. The rapid increase in the number of vehicles circulating in Athens, and the poor maintenance of catalytic converters (hundreds of thousands of which should already have been replaced) play a decisive role in keeping nitrogen monoxide and dioxide levels high, the latter having an annual average level in the city center that is far higher than the acceptable limit. Long hours of sunshine and high temperatures favor the concentration of ozone levels, particularly in areas where there are fewer cars, since ozone is destroyed by car exhaust fumes. As if this were not enough, the concentration of airborne particles only recently began to be measured, and with worrying results. At Lykovryssi in northern Athens, over a 24-hour period, levels exceeded acceptable limits on 113 out of the 265 days of 2003. Even at the top of Mt Pendeli, the concentration was extremely high. Meanwhile the experts are warning that Athens is likely to be prone to attacks from the most deadly pollutant, benzene, known to cause leukemia. The battle to save the environment is an ongoing one. New challenges and threats are appearing all the time. Scientific progress is resulting in the discovery of more and more pollutants previously unknown to man. Continual vigilance and immediate action by the government as well as cooperation and increased awareness on the part of the public are needed if this long-term, if not permanent, fight for harmonious and healthy coexistence between man and nature is to be won.