Air pollution is directly responsible for up to one in five premature deaths in 19 Western Balkan cities, suggest preliminary results from a report led by UN Environment.
Preliminary findings from the ‘Air Pollution and Human Health: The Case of the Western Balkans‘ report shows that the sum total number of premature deaths directly attributable to air pollution in the cities is nearly 5,000 a year. In seven of the cities studied, air pollution is responsible for at least 15% of premature mortality, and 19% in Tetovo, in North Macedonia.
On average, people living in the Western Balkans lose up to 1.3 years of life to air pollution. Levels of particulate matter – which comes from dust, soot and smoke and is strongly linked to cardiovascular diseases – can be over five times higher in the region than World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, the study reveals.
Average concentrations of PM2.5 particulate matter in all but one of the 19 cities studied exceeded the World Health Organisation guideline level of 10 μg/m3. A daily PM10 limit of 40μg/m3 set out under national legislation was found to be exceeded between 120 and 180 days a year – especially during winter. In comparison, European Union member states are not permitted to breach this level for more than 35 days a year.
“Last winter, I wanted to make snowmen and snowballs, but we couldn’t go outside. We must sometimes wear masks or scarves over our faces”, said 9-year old Sarah Kaidić, of the Isak Samokovlija school in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, during a World Environment Day press field trip. “I am very angry at people who run giant factories – they don’t care about anyone’s health,” said her classmate Arijan Haverić.
“We need to pay attention to the different types of air pollution and their health consequences,” said pulmonologist and allergologist Zehra Dizdarević, who treats patients for lower and upper respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and pneumonia.
The main sources of particulate matter emissions are thermal power plants that use low quality lignite coal and household heating. More than 60 per cent of people living in the Western Balkans use solid fuels such as coal and firewood to heat their homes, with only 12 per cent of buildings connected to district heating systems.
Solutions for reducing air pollution must, therefore, include alleviating energy poverty by making modern clean energy more accessible, the report underlines. Average household expenditure on electricity in Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo (under UNSCR 1244/99), North Macedonia and Albania meets or exceeds the energy poverty line. Measures to ban old polluting vehicles and introduce clean transport alternatives are needed. The report also calls for more stringent regulations on industrial emitters and restrictions on coal thermal power stations. There are currently 15 active coal-fired power stations in the Western Balkans.
“We are supporting businesses that use renewable energy,” said Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Federal Environment and Tourism Minister, Edita Đapo. The country also wants to help people living in the hills in the city outskirts to access cleaner and affordable energy, she explained.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has considerably improved its air quality monitoring capacity. “Six or seven years ago, we could only monitor two types of data per day. Today, on an hourly basis, we have 60 different results”, said Enis Omerčić, air quality specialist at the Federal Hydro-Meteorological Institute, in Sarajevo. UN Environment has helped by procuring and maintaining monitoring stations and has contributed to the creation of a national air quality index.
Data from Korca, Banja Luka, Brod, Prijedor, Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica, Bar, Niksic, Pljevlja, Podgorica, Tivat, Bitola, Skopje, Tetovo, Beograd, Pancevo Uzice and Valjevo was analysed for the report. The effect of air pollution on human health was calculated using AirQ+ software developed by the World Health Organisation. It is estimated that the number of deaths would be much greater if all relevant data were available for analysis.