Poland is drowning in the fog of war
Four years later, as the fallout from the war in Ukraine cuts off Russian gas supplies to Poland, local authorities have suspended a ban on the dirtiest stoves for heating, while air pollution in Olpiny quadrupled last month.
“I feel completely helpless and abandoned by the state,” said Julia Tkaczuk, 38, whose five-year-old son has asthma. “Every sneeze is a wake-up call for me.”
The situation is even worse in Krakow, Poland’s second largest city.
New Delhi was the only city in the world to have higher concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) in the air on the night of November 20, when the temperature dipped below freezing for the first time this year. A California-based pollution control organization.
Apart from Poland, several European countries such as Germany and Hungary burn lignite, a more polluting fuel, to keep the lights on, but experts say it is the use of this fuel at home that has the greatest impact on health.
In the municipality where the Tkaczuks live, coal is the main source of heat, and 40% of households use outdated stoves known as “smokers” because of the toxic fumes they emit.
Piotr Kleczkowski, a professor specializing in environmental protection at AGH University in Krakow, estimates that lifting the ban in Tkaczuk province would cause up to 1,500 premature deaths this winter.
Lignite contains several times more sulfur and ash than black coal, five times more mercury and provides three times less energy. Burning at home releases deadly sulfur and mercury compounds, increasing the risk of asthma, lung cancer, cardiac arrest and stroke.
“It gets worse: when there’s more sulfur in the air, mercury gets into our lungs more easily,” Kleczkowski said, referring to how the two elements combine in polluted air.
TURN ALL ON
Admittedly, Poland has been one of the dirtiest countries in Europe for years, and governments have tried to curb the burning of dirty fuels in homes.
But after Russian gas was cut in April following a payment dispute, the Law and Justice (PiS) government eased a two-year ban on burning low-quality lignite and hard coal in household stoves, which cannot be filtered effectively.
It also eased restrictions on the sale of highly polluting waste coal, returning Poland to the pre-2018 era when coal rules were tightened to fight smog.
In September, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński even ordered residents of Nowy Targ, the city with the worst air quality in Poland in 2020, to burn almost anything they wanted.
“We have to burn everything except tires or something like that, because unfortunately that’s what’s going on here,” he said. “We just need to warm up Poland.”
In November, the central Polish region of Lodz also delayed for two years a ban on the dirtiest home heaters, which was due to come into effect in 2023.
The government says the lifting of the ban on lignite and low-grade coal is linked to the war in Ukraine and should be temporary – and its impact on air quality will be assessed after the winter.
“The central government has no influence on the scope and duration of regional anti-smog regulations,” Poland’s Climate Ministry said in response to questions from Reuters.
EXCEEDING STANDARDS IS OUR STANDARD
Doctors say the political flip-flop is causing respiratory problems in already the most polluted areas.
According to Katarjina Musiol, head of the pediatric department, in Rybnik, near the Czech border, the temperature dropped sharply in November, so the admission of children to the provincial specialist hospital increased.
On the night of November 20, when the air temperature in Rybnik dropped to minus 3 degrees, according to Airly, which has five monitoring points in the city, the average concentration of PM 2.5 particles was 6 times higher than the norm.
Particulate matter is considered the most dangerous air pollutant. Only 2.5 microns or less in diameter, PM 2.5 particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and even the bloodstream.
Although it was the first really cold night of the year in Rybnik, the air quality was the worst since December 13, 2021, when the temperature was minus 6 degrees.
“As a result, the ward is full of children, 90% of them have smog-triggering diseases: shortness of breath, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), aggravated asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia. Some are babies of a few weeks old, with respiratory problems and RSV,” Musiol told Reuters. to
“Being above normal is our norm. The fog has been heavy for the last few days and we have many children who need intensive care,” he added.
The city of 130,000 people in the Silesian province has maintained anti-fog regulations. Therefore, stoves older than 10 years are prohibited, but coal is widely used.
Magdalena Kolarczyk Guz of the Rybnik Municipal Police patrols the city during the day, looking for smoke-filled houses to find people breaking the rules.
“Even the words of the most important politicians don’t change the law,” he told Reuters as he patrolled a neighborhood of single-family homes.
He finds someone spewing foul smoke into the sky. But when he rings the doorbell, no one answers and he has no power to force entry.
About 80% of the coal used by EU citizens to heat homes is burned in Poland. Warsaw began running out shortly after it became the first EU member to stop buying coal from Russia in April.
Prices quadrupled and public sellers began rationing. Desperate to stock up for the winter, Poles began going to the Czech Republic in the summer to buy lignite from wholesalers there.
“The interest from Polish customers is huge,” said Dan Bernat, a Czech coal trader in Libunda, 35 km (22 miles) from the Polish border. Sometimes they demand absurd volumes, full trucks or 10, 15 tons, which we cannot handle.
In Poland, three tons of black coal, usually the amount needed to heat a house in winter, can cost 10,000 to 12,000 zlotys ($2,240 to $2,690), compared to an average monthly wage of just under 5,000 after tax.
The Polish electricity and utilities company said lignite costs one-tenth the price of hard coal and sold 21,000 tonnes in the first four weeks after it was made available to home users in October.
“I can’t afford hard coal,” farmer Kazimierz Kujawski said as he arrived to collect six tons, the maximum an individual customer can buy, outside the sprawling lignite mine in Belchatow, central Poland.
With coal unaffordable for some, residents also resort to burning garbage, which releases more carcinogenic toxins than lignite, and which local authorities are struggling to prevent, Professor Kleczkowski said.
In October, a homeowner in the northern Polish town of Wejherowo refused to accept a fine from local police for burning waste furniture, saying PiS leader Kaczynski could burn anything. The court case is ongoing.
“We’re putting more pollutants into the atmosphere than we’ve seen in the last 12 months,” Kleczkowski said.
“If sub-zero temperatures return, we will see very high levels of pollution: levels where acute effects, including stroke, can occur.”
($1 = 4.4664 zlotys)