TV stations flash pollution alerts. People don masks for their morning jogs. Preschools stop taking children outside to play.
As smog across coal-addicted Poland hits crisis levels, four environmental groups announced Friday that they are preparing a complaint to the European Union accusing Poland of violating EU laws meant to control air pollution.
Poland is one of the two most polluted countries in the 28-member bloc, along with Bulgaria. The main cause of air pollution is people burning poor quality coal, sometimes even plastics and other garbage, often in home furnaces that are not equipped to filter out damaging particles. One key pollutant is benzopyrene, a cancer-causing substance.
Benzopyrene concentrations are on average five to seven times higher than the legal norm across Poland, and 12 to 15 times the legal norm in the dirtiest regions, particularly the regions around Krakow and Lodz, according to Agnieszka Warso-Buchanan, legal counsel on clean air for ClientEarth, one of the groups preparing the complaint.
Warsaw’s air is traditionally better than the southern areas, but this winter it has been bad as cold temperatures force people to burn more coal. A lack of strong winds has added to the problem and suddenly this year people have started wearing smog masks in public as awareness of the problem has grown.
Warsaw has also made public transport free twice recently to discourage car usage, another source of the pollution.
The bad air quality is to blame for 48,000 premature deaths per year in this nation of 38 million. Most of the deaths are the result of lung cancer or heart disease, Warso-Buchanan said.
Simply breathing is the equivalent of smoking 1,000 cigarettes a year in Warsaw and 2,500 in Krakow, environmental experts say.
“I think most people don’t feel well but they just don’t realize why,” Warso-Buchanan said.
The other groups preparing the complaint are Greenpeace and two local organizations, The City is Ours and Akcja Democracja. They said they would gather signatures of support from the public over the next week and file the complaint to the European Commission on Feb. 17.
They said that if the Commission chooses to act on the complaint it could eventually lead to fines being imposed on Poland. But what they really want is for the government to take measures to address the problem.
Poland has long been dependent on coal, which is prized because it’s cheap and helps reduce the country’s energy dependence on Russia.
However, the current populist ruling party, Law and Justice, has come under criticism for backsliding even on some modest progress made by earlier governments. After assuming power in 2015 the party passed a law that sharply discouraged the development of wind energy.