UPINI, Poland (Reuters) – In 2018, the Tukaczuk family left the Polish city of Krakow for the clean air of the countryside and moved to the village at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains.
Four years later, this year, after the Ukraine war cut Russia’s supply of natural gas to Poland, local authorities postponed a ban on the most polluting obsolete stoves. Air pollution in the village reached four times the legal limit last month.
“It’s a disappointing feeling to be abandoned by the country. For me, every breath is a warning sign,” lamented Yulia Tukachuk, 38.
The situation is even worse in Krakow, Poland’s second largest city.
According to Airy, a California-based organization that tracks air pollution, on the night of November 20, when temperatures dipped below freezing for the first time this fall, Krakow’s PM2.5 concentration was the second highest in the world after New Delhi, India. became the second highest in
Poland, Germany, Hungary and many other European countries are increasing their use of the most polluting lignite to generate electricity, but experts say the biggest health hazard is burning lignite at home. Thing.
Coal is the main source of heating in Tukachuk’s region, with 40 percent of households using old-fashioned stoves called ‘smokers’. The name comes from the fact that it emits toxic smoke.
Piotr Kreczkowski, an environmental protection professor at Krakow’s AGH University, estimates that up to 1,500 premature deaths will occur this winter in Tukaczyk’s canton as the ban on such stoves is lifted. ing.
Lignite contains several times more sulfur and ash and five times more mercury than black coal, while producing only one-third as much energy. Burning it at home releases a toxic combination of sulfur and mercury that increases the risk of asthma, lung cancer, heart failure and stroke.
Poland has long been one of the most polluted countries in Europe, and local governments have tried to crack down on the use of toxic fuels in their homes.
But after the supply of Russian gas stopped in April, the central government suspended a two-year-old ban on the burning of lignite and low-quality anthracite in homes. Restrictions on the sale of coal waste, which causes severe air pollution, have also been eased, reverting to the situation before 2018 when coal-related regulations were tightened to combat smog.
In September, the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, Kaczynski, told residents of Nowy Tark: “Everything should be burned except tires and the like, because unfortunately this is the reality. Simply put, there is no heating in Poland. is necessary.”
Such policy shifts are already causing respiratory problems in areas with high levels of air pollution, doctors said.
Children’s admissions surged in November when temperatures dropped at the state hospital in Rybnik, near the border with the Czech Republic, said Katarzyna Musior, head of the pediatrics ward.
Airy’s data shows that on the night of November 20th, when the temperature dropped to minus 3 degrees Celsius, the average concentration of PM2.5 reached 6 times the normal level.
“As a result, the wards were filled with children, 90% of whom had symptoms triggered by the smog, such as shortness of breath, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), exacerbation of asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia. In some cases, babies in the first few weeks of life have trouble breathing and RSV,” Musior said.
“Beyond the norm has become the norm. The smog has been heavy in recent days and many children are in intensive care.”
About 80% of the coal used for home heating in the European Union is consumed in Poland. Shortly after becoming the first EU member state to stop buying Russian coal in April, Poland began to run out of coal.
Coal prices have quadrupled, and state-owned marketing companies have started rationing. Citizens began driving to the Czech Republic during the summer to purchase lignite from Czech wholesalers, hoping to secure lignite for the winter.
Some households without access to coal resort to burning garbage. According to Kreczkowski, the garbage contains more carcinogenic toxins, and local authorities are struggling to stop burning it.
In October, a resident of northern Poland refused to be fined by local police for burning garbage from furniture. The resident claims that Law and Justice leader Kaczynski said he could burn anything. The lawsuit is pending.
(Reporters Marek Strzelecki, Kuba Stezycki)