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CleanAir in Greece

An independent platform meant to inform the public about the day to day Air Quality in Greece, with advice on how to protect ourselves from the dangers of Air Pollution

CleanAir in Greece was created in order to inform the public about the issue of Air Pollution in our country, because Air Pollution is a serious health issue that nowadays causes 1 in 5 deaths worldwide but few know about it. Air pollution ranks nowadays as the fourth global killer after High Blood Pressure, Smoking and High Blood Sugar. Again, we don’t know anything about it.

Greece still lacks access to basic air quality data and has a very small number of official Air Quality monitor stations. Furthermore, there is no official discussion about Air Pollution in our country (and if there is, we the citizens don’t hear anything about it), hence the need for an independent platform to inform the public about it.

Numbers don’t lie:

Greece ranked as the 36th most polluted country of the world in 2019 and the most polluted country of the EU, with an average concentration of the dangerous particulate matter PM2,5 double than the safety limit set by the WHO. Furthermore, Greece has the highest mortality rate due to Air Pollution in the EU! But no authorities openly tell us this sad story, do they?

Greece is the 36th most polluted country of the world and

the most polluted in the EU,

with PM2,5 levels double than those set as safe by the WHO

Sadly, it also has the EU’s highest mortality rate due to Air Pollution

In this blog we discuss what Air Pollution is, how it affects us, how it can be observed and detected and what we can do in order to minimize its impact on our health. We use real time data from a growing number of independent air pollution monitors spread around the country in order to discuss real life situations. We also use information from hundreds of studies done on the subject to point out the problems connected to Air Pollution, as well as the solutions that can help us breathe a better, cleaner air. Because once you start knowing and understanding what Air Pollution is, then you can start taking the first steps to reducing your exposure to it and ultimately breath better and enjoy a better health on the long term.

Our ultimate goal must be to improve the quality of the air

we breathe until we won’t need to

discuss about it anymore because

it will be clean like on a mountain top!

Clean Air means no more Air Pollution.

But what is Air Pollution?

Air Pollution is something that we hear about more and more often but we don’t really know what it is because we can’t really see it or touch it – can we? Also, since we don’t know how to deal with it in our everyday lives, we just ignore it and we keep on doing our business as if it was not there.

As invisible as it is, Air Pollution is actually something that we do smell if we live in a city. But, again, because we are used to its smell we don’t pay attention to it. Not only, actually our nose gets used to it because our olfactory sense becomes physically impaired when we breathe a constantly polluted air. We only clearly recognize its smell once we come back to the city after some days spent breathing fresh air on a nice trip in the countryside, at the sea, etc. Isn’t it so? But then, once back, soon the nose gets used to the smell again and we forget about it.

9 in 10 people around the world breathe polluted air today

But it doesn’t have to be so, because breathing Clean Air is a basic right to be enjoyed by all of us, wherever we are

So why bothering about Air Pollution if we don’t see it, we are not disturbed by its smell and especially we don’t know what to do about it ? Well, because even though it is easy to do as if it didn’t exist in the short term of our everyday lives, it can not be evaded anymore due to its massively negative long term effects. In fact, Air Pollution has become the invisible killer that caused as many as 8.7 million premature deaths worldwide in 2018, which correspond to one death every 3,5 seconds! In Greece, up to 16.600 people die annually due to Air Pollution, which corresponds to almost 2 people dying every hour! Air Pollution is now the world number one environmental threat to our health that causes more premature deaths than any natural disaster or wars or illnesses such as malaria and HIV, and even of COVID-19. The mortality due to the latter is actually heavily enhanced by Air Pollution, which weakens our natural body defences and the lung and vascular tissues that are attacked by the coronavirus. As many as 11% of the COVID-19 deaths are attributable to Air Pollution, which is now considered the “new tobacco” that is pervading our lives anywhere we are. It is choking the entire world even behind the boundaries of our cities, and nine out of ten people now breathe polluted air. Air Pollution is hard to escape, no matter how rich an area we live in. It is literally all around us. Microscopic pollutants in the air can easily slip past our body’s defences, penetrating deep into our respiratory and circulatory systems, damaging our lungs, heart and brain. Hundreds of scientific studies prove how a long-term exposure to air pollution enhances life-threatening diseases such as stroke, heart attack, lung cancer, etc. Sadly, it also directly harms the health of our children – who are more sensitive to its negative effects – in a very alarming way. In fact, children’s asthma, allergies, even diabetes and cancer can be caused and enhanced by Air Pollution. Their intelligence and behavior are also impaired by Air Pollution: autism, schizophrenia, hyperactivity and attention deficit can arise in children from a long-term exposure to dirty air, even from before birth if their mother was exposed to high levels of pollution too.

If we want to put down in numbers it negative effects, it has been calculated that Air Pollution cuts people’s life expectancy by 2,9 years in average, more than smoking (1,6 years), alcohol (11 months), malaria or HIV (4 months) and terrorism (22 days). In economical terms, burning gas, coal and oil results in three times as many deaths as road traffic accidents worldwide and it is estimated that Air Pollution has a $2.9 trillion economic cost, equating to 3.3 percent of the world’s GDP. In 2018, it is estimated that it was linked to 1.8 billion days of work absence, 4 million new cases of child asthma and 2 million premature births.

Air Pollution cuts people’s life expectancy by 2,9 years

and causes 4 million new cases of child asthma each year,

costing $2.9 trillion to the global economy, equivalent to 3.3% of global GDP

It is therefore clear that reducing Air Pollution would benefit us greatly in many ways. Hence this blog, which wants to inform readers in Greece about all the issues relative to Air Pollution, including how to reduce it and make our lives less affected by it.

Air Pollution facts

Air Pollution has two main causes: natural and anthropogenic (man-made).

Natural sources are for example volcanic eruptions, windblown dust, sea-salt spray, natural bushfires and emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) from plants.

Anthropogenic sources are mostly coming from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) in electricity generation, transport, industry and households; from industrial processes and solvent use, for example in the chemical and mining industries; and from the burning of biomass (wood, crops, etc.).

There are complex links between air pollutant emissions and air quality. These include chemical transformations, reactions to sunlight and the impact of weather and topography.

Here below is a list of the pollutants that make up most of what we think of as air pollution:

Particulate Matter (PM)

Also known as aerosols, PM is a mix of fine dust and tiny liquid droplets covering a wide range of sizes and chemical compositions that are suspended in the air.

PM is either directly emitted as primary particles or it forms in the atmosphere in complex chemical reactions between pollution gases such as Sulfur Dioxide, Nitrogen Oxides, ammonia and Volatile Organic Compounds.

PM10, PM2,5 and PM1 are the three types of particulate matter that we mostly talk about: PM10 is coarser dust with a diameter of 10 μm (one thousandth of a millimetre) or less that our body naturally stops in the upper airways from entering deep into the lungs, while PM2,5 (2,5 μm) and PM1 (1μm) are much smaller in size and end up deeper into our lungs and then pass into the blood stream creating all sorts of health problems.

The WHO updated (restricted) the PM annual recommended limits in 2021. PM10 average should be lower than 15 μg/m3/year and PM2,5 5 μg/m3. No limit has been set for PM1 yet.

The EU sets these limits at 50 μg/m3 for PM10 and at a less safe 25 μg/m3 for PM2,5. Clearly these limits are outdated in 2021. The EU promised that they will be updated in 2022. Let’s see if they do it…

High levels of PM exposure cause or aggravate cardiovascular and lung diseases, heart attacks and arrhythmias. It also affects the central nervous system and as such it can impair children’s brain development and lead to early dementia and Alzheimer in the elderly.

All cities in Greece exceed both PM10 and PM2,5 WHO safety levels by many times, especially in winter when wood and oil are burned for heating. In winter Athens has levels of PM2,5 above 150 μg/m3 during cold, windless nights due to the uncontrolled burning of wood for heating but other cities like Larissa and Ioannina and many smaller villages have even worse levels that exceed 250 μg/m3 and even more. This air is very toxic!

Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)

NO2 is a gaseous pollutant in the family of the Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) that has a red-brown color and a characteristic acidic, pungent smell. It is highly reactive and in the presence of sunlight and VOCs it readily forms ground level Ozone, which is also a dangerous pollutant.

NO2 comes mainly from energy production, industry and transport (especially from diesel engines). NO2 has more than doubled in our cities since 1990 because of the growth of diesel car sales, and is expected to grow more if no measures are taken.

NO2 can be wind-blown far from the sources of pollution, ending up in natural ecosystems and farmland, affecting plants and animals and reducing crop yields and acidifying soils, forests and water.

Breathing air with a high concentration of NO2 irritates and inflames airways in the human respiratory system and reduces lung function. Longer exposures to elevated concentrations of NO2 contribute to the development of asthma in children and adults and generally increases hospital admissions. It also affects the liver, spleen and blood.

The WHO recommends now that the concentration of NO2 in the air may not exceed an annual average of 10 μg/m3, while according the EU Air Quality Directive sets the limit at 40 μg/m3. In Greece the NO2 annual mean exceeds the WHO limit by at least 70%, which is really too much.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

VOCs are hundreds of different chemicals found in the air that are either directly polluting substances or may be precursors to other polluting compounds after having reacted with other gases. They are “volatile” because they evaporate readily into the air at lower temperatures. Harmless VOCs are naturally emitted by plants in big quantities (isoprene for example is responsible for the bluish haze above forests, but also the nice scents of flowers are VOCs). Dangerous VOCs can be emitted by combustion, by paint and solvent applications, dry cleaning, all sorts of industrial activities, by wood burning, by combustibles, etc. Some of the common dangerous VOCs are xilene, which comes from gloss paint, and, along with benzene and toluene, gives the typical smell to gasoline stations. All sorts of VOCs, even the natural ones, can react with NOx and SOx to create Ozone and secondary PM.

Ground level Ozone (O3)

Ground level Ozone is produced in the air by the action of sunlight on Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in the presence of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2).

Ground level Ozone is harmful, contrarily to the best know Ozone layer found at high altitudes in the atmosphere that protects the earth surface from harmful UV radiations.

Ozone is a highly reactive and oxidizing gas that at ground level creates problems to all living organisms. Like NO2, it travels far from its sources, carried by the wind, and “burns” common crops of wheat, rice, etc. and natural vegetation. Even a short exposure to high ozone levels is sufficient to cause inflammation in the respiratory tract. Ozone can lead to asthma, with children and elderly being most at risk. Especially at risk are persons who spend much time outdoors and levels of 60-120 ppb are already enough to affect the lung function of children.

The new WHO recommendations set the limits for Ozone concentration to 50 ppb or 100 μg/m3 for an 8-hour average exposure and a peak period concentration of 30 ppb or 60 μg/m3.

The EU sets this safety limit higher at 60ppb or 120 μg/m3 and requires Greece and other EU countries to issue information warnings for Ozone levels above 90ppb (180 μg/m3) and an alert warning for levels of 180ppb (360 μg/m3).

Greece and countries in the warmer regions of the world have serious Ozone pollution problems. During hot summer days, the WHO safety limit is being extensively exceeded in our country with levels that easily go over 150 ppb. Ozone mean annual value in Athens is above 50ppb, which is too high!

This is the air we want and deserve to breathe!

Click here to go to the CleanAir in Greece Blog to read news and other material about Air Quality in Greece

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