Tuesday, January 7, 2014

City Hall: Air pollution's your problem, not ours

A smog alert's on in Budapest and, by law, the mayor needs to take immediate action. What do you suppose that means? Rationing car use? Banning wood burning?

No, as far as I can tell, nothing like that is suggested. Instead, the mayor's telling people to stay indoors and away from busy roads where pollution levels are highest. Particularly children, the elderly and people with asthma or other breathing disorders.

At our  three-year-old daughter's daycare, there's an indefinite injunction on outdoor playtime. Our 9-year-old boy has to travel down one of the city's busiest roads on the way to school, so if we take the mayor's kind advice, we shouldn't take Lance to classes at all.

Naturally, there are many factors that contribute to Budapest's air problems. City Hall's announcement stresses the contribution of things that are out of its hands: weather systems and even pollution coming from abroad (Has xenophobia clouded the minds of Hungarian meteorologists?). The notice seems to downplay contributions from local sources, including transport. According to EU studies, transport on average accounts for "40 percent of CO2 pollution and up to 70 percent of other types of pollution" in European cities.

Budapest regularly exceeds European air quality norms during the winter and fall. A few years ago, City Hall made a lame effort to ration car use during air alert periods. Cars with even-numbered plates were allowed on streets on even numbered days, odds on odd-numbered days. However, most drivers ignored the ban and no penalties were ever issued. Instead the mayor simply lifted the ban, and it hasn't been attempted since.

Bad city air causes breathing problems, cardiovascular disease and shortened lives in cities the world over. A Hungarian study published several years ago concluded that air pollution robbed the average Budapest resident of two years of life. Maybe City Hall figures that you won't miss what you'll never have.

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