Air Pollution: 20 Plus Measures that Can Quickly Improve a City’s Air Quality

Air Pollution: 20 Plus Measures that Can Quickly Improve a City’s Air Quality

/ July 5, 2021
Read this article in Romanian on PressOne.ro
Bucharest’s poor air quality is felt much more acutely during the winter months, when the city’s emissions remain concentrated at ground level
Bucharest’s poor air quality is felt much more acutely during the winter months, when the city’s emissions remain concentrated at ground level

The inhabitants of Romania’s cities breathe poison daily, and this phenomenon is not recent, it has been the case for decades. It is the combination of an unfortunate climate (dry winds blowing over the plains in the country’s southern region), ill-chosen geographical locations (Transylvanian cities are arranged in natural depressions where the air does not circulate enough to keep up with daily emissions) and poor and incompetent municipal management, regardless of the city’s location.

But the growing agitation about the air quality in cities is something new. Up until a few years ago, no one was too concerned about the poison we are breathing. When research articles were published, indicating that over 23,000 Romanians die yearly due to air pollution, many shrugged their shoulders and said “so what?” Meanwhile, people have seen with their very own eyes that pollution levels are three to six times higher than what they should be, and so citizens have started to worry. Until now, the fact that a Colectiv incident occurs on the daily, is something that has been more difficult to visualize than the Airly and Aerlive air quality index meters, which are always in the red zone.

This is what an ordinary day looks like in Bucharest. There are days when the air quality index is much higher, especially in the evening. Normally, it should be below 30. Source: Aerlive.ro
This is what an ordinary day looks like in Bucharest. There are days when the air quality index is much higher, especially in the evening. Normally, it should be below 30. Source: Aerlive.ro

Where does pollution come from? We have to admit that the city’s air quality was much worse during the communist years, when it was full of lead from car emissions, dust clouds from construction sites that were haphazardly put together, and smoke full of heavy metals from large industrial buildings located in the city, And this was the reality regardless of whether you were in Bucharest, Cluj, Iasi or any other large city in Romania. The collapse of these types of industries has led to cleaner air. Emerging regulations in the construction field have also greatly diminished the overall impact of construction sites. However, two new factors have arisen in the meantime: the dramatic increase of old cars being registered as well as garbage incineration.

The Cars that Kill Us

According to a research study available at Bucharest’s City Hall, completed in 2014, the main culprit behind these high emission rates are the cars. And here, we are not only referring to cars for private use, but also tractor trailers, other commercial vehicles and buses. If we put the latter three together, they are more to blame for emissions than all private vehicles combined (52.8% of the total compared to 47.2% of cars).

“Overall, the highest contribution to total NOx emissions comes from cars (47.2%) and heavy commercial vehicles (18.7%), followed by buses (16.9%) and light commercial vehicles (16 ,5%). For total PM10 emissions, the highest input is from cars (48.7%) and light commercial vehicles (26.5%), followed by heavy commercial vehicles (12.3%) and buses (12.1%). 

 It is notable that the release of emissions by the main vehicle categories show a large contribution from heavy vehicles and buses to the total level of emissions relative to the total number of vehicles in this class for pollutants such as NOx and PM10.

Report on Stage II of the ENVIRONMENTAL AIR QUALITY PLANS project FROM THE MUNICIPALITY OF BUCHAREST

Obviously, since then, the situation has worsened mainly due to the increase in vehicle ownership taxes for used vehicles, which has led to the import of almost 2 million used cars over the last 5 years, most of which are brought to the cities, not particularly to the countryside. 

This data needs to be examined more closely once again, in order to grasp the magnitude of the problem: almost half of Romania’s cars are over 16 years old, manufactured before 2003! 79 percent of Romania’s cars are over 11 years old.

23 percent of cars are more than 20 years old, 25 percent are between 16 and 20 years old, and 31 percent are between 11 and 15 years old. So 71 percent of cars on Romanian roads are, in fact, scrap metal. Information source: Government of Romania
23 percent of cars are more than 20 years old, 25 percent are between 16 and 20 years old, and 31 percent are between 11 and 15 years old. So 71 percent of cars on Romanian roads are, in fact, scrap metal. Information source: Government of Romania

Many of them do not even correspond to the car specifications valid at the time they were manufactured. As a result, they do not pollute only a few times more than a new car, according to Euro 2-4 emission standards that were reported on paper at Euro 5-6 standards, but tens, and sometimes even hundreds of times more than a new car. This can be  witnessed with the naked eye in the city, where many diesel-powered cars run with their deactivated microparticle cleaning system, a source of poison for everyone around. 

Every year, Romanians have registered significantly more used cars than new ones, even if the trend of importing used vehicles in diminishing. Data source: ACAROM/ Government of Romania
Every year, Romanians have registered significantly more used cars than new ones, even if the trend of importing used vehicles in diminishing. Data source: ACAROM/ Government of Romania

Add to this equation the fact that the majority of time a car spends in traffic is with the engine idling, idling, or stuck, including modern cars, which is turning them into ecological threats. Vouchers for new cars are given in vain in a city where traffic is moves at less than 18 kilometers per hour, advancing in nervous jumps, with drivers hitting the accelerator as hard as they can, only to apply their brake 200 meters ahead.

 Air as a Landfill

Although the pollution caused by cars is measurable, the pollution caused by garbage incineration has not yet been properly measured. In fact, authorities swear that there is no garbage being burnt, that everything is fine, although journalistic investigations have found that this is not at all the truth – as in the case of the incinerator near Ploiești. There are dozens of incinerators that burn anything and everything, under the watchful eyes of the authorities. Do we have a clear understanding of them? No, not at all. 

Let us also keep in mind the ancestral habit of burning vegetable waste in the cold season. All of our cities are surrounded by village where the air is unbreathable not only due to wood smoke emitted from chimneys of homes,  (43 percent of Romanians’ homes use wood and coal for heated) but especially from gardens. When atmospheric conditions are such that gusts of air are minimal and smoke therefore does not rise, this smoke creeps into the cities together with the fog, and is trapped there until late in the day. 

The emissions index panels in the city are a great joke. Or maybe not so great, as the case may be. In fact, no one really knows what the truth is.

Other toxic mixtures can be added to the list of thing that cause emissions: gas central heating in new apartments, gas leaf blowers and lawnmowers, (one of these emits more pollutants than a dozen cars because it has no catalyst), dust that gathers and sits in layers on the side of the road and on sidewalks and so on. Should we be surprised, then, that freshly installed air quality index meters only show obsolete values ​​in cities that are surrounded by Australian fires?

But there is no need to endlessly complain because there are viable solutions. Some of them are immediate, or at least easy to implement in a short time. Others require a more complex strategy. Yet all must be part of a plan that is structured and implemented by a mayor, regardless of the city in which it’s located.

20 Plus Measures that Can Quickly Improve Air Quality in Romania’s Cities

According to air quality specialists, there are concrete measures that public administrators and citizens alike can take to reduce air pollution. Let us begin by looking at the things we ourselves can do, because they will have an impact today. 

Reducing emissions begins with us. Urgent measures for all of us to take on within a maximum of six months. 

According to experts in the emissions field, each of our individual behaviours has a major and immediate impact on air quality. Here are some of the solutions we can personally implement before pointing our fingers at the authorities. 

  1. Use public transportation instead of a personal car, at least a few days of the month.
  2. Carpool with co-workers.
  3. Use cars that are in good working condition, (active EGR valves, correctly inflated tires, ECO-friendly brake pads).
  4. Compost vegetable waste rather than burning it, (which is illegal anyway).
  5. Reduce the number of non-essential car trips (if you can take a walk to the grocery store, etc).
A single car that has its EGR deactivated pollutes as much as tens of other cars.
A single car that has its EGR deactivated pollutes as much as tens of other cars. 

There needs to be a change in the behavior of each individual, and unfortunately, this is not easy. We can choose to use bicycles or public transportation instead of our personal vehicles. We can decide to carpool to the office with our co-workers rather than each of us taking our own cars. And it is equally important to be active in asking the authorities to take measures that will ultimately reduce pollution. Another thing we can do is monitor the air quality ourselves at work or at home by installing a meter that costs about 300 euros (Airly, AirVisual Pro, uRADmonitor). ” 

Ștefan Voinea – Romanian Health Observatory

In addition to these individual measures, intervention from the part of authorities is also needed. According to specialists and specialized studies (cited in the link below), there are a number of measures with a massive impact on air quality, which can be taken quickly.

Measures Can be Taken by Authorities to a Maximum of Six Months

  1. Washing streets with pressure waters or strong water jets and/or subsequently vacuuming (reduces suspended particles on the sidewalk by about 70 percent)
  2. Planting hedges and perennial bushes on the edge of boulevards and streets (reduces suspended pollutants by 15-60% on the sidewalk, depending on the pollutant – pollutants, PM2.5, PM10, etc.)
  3. Prohibition of the use of gas leaf blowers or lawn mowers and replacing them with electric blowers
  4. Prohibiting, monitoring and making the burning of vegetable waste in the city and surrounding villages a punishable offense
  5. Massive traffic interventions for the purpose of giving fines to drivers whose vehicles are not up to standard with their emissions (EGR removes, etc., obviously requires an active collaboration with RAR)
  6. Creation of a system of dozens of air quality index meters for real-time measurement of air quality, located in both congested and residential areas.
In the first phase, it is possible to collaborate with the already existing networks after their calibration is verified. Subsequently, Romania should have its own network with thousands of meters, especially in big cities. Info source: Airly.eu/map/en

“An urban anti-pollution strategy must be based on current and real-time data. In order to take action, we must understand where the most polluted areas of a city are. When Beijing decided to lower traffic emission, the number of air quality monitoring meters increased from 35 to over 1,000. In Romania, the National Environmental Protection Agency, responsible for the air quality monitoring network, is trying hard to hide this data. The big cities in our country have too few air quality monitoring meters, and many of the meters either do not have functioning sensors or are located in areas that are unrepresentative (for example, in parks).

Ștefan Voinea – Romanian Health Observatory

More Complex Measures Can be Taken by Authorities Within Six Months to a Maximum of Two Years

  1. Careful monitoring of landfills, cement factories, incinerators and the burning of any type of waste, as well as close monitoring of factories in the city and all sources of gas combustion (including in residential buildings). If building incinerators is the option that is chosen to replace current landfills, they should employ state-of-the-art technology and not have to bring garbage from other areas.  
  2. Careful monitoring of construction sites and any projects that involve infrastructure  work, as the resulting dust remains in the atmosphere and is full of particularly toxic substances.
  3. Landscaping, planting trees and green bushes all year round, especially ones that are shade-resistant. They have a greater ability to retain and filter dust than ordinary plants. In addition, they help biodiversity.
  4. Reduction of concrete lots dedicated to ground-level parking and increasing the cost of parking to stimulate the construction of underground car parks. The one million cars parked on ground-level in Bucharest represent just as many sources of pollution, regardless of their working condition. 
  5. Creating bicycle lanes for bicycles and electric scooters that cross the city on its axes, in the center and middle rins. 
  6. Massive investment in electric public transport and the gradual abandonment of diesel buses. All new buses should be electric, so that in a maximum of ten years, there will be no more diesel buses in the city’s car park.

“Both the Ministry of Environment and the City of Bucharest ignored the ORS’s efforts to obtain a clear picture of the actions that would be taken to reduce pollution from the authorities. ORS, together with other environmental and health-related NGOs, (such as Ecopolis or 2Celsius), provided the authorities with data showing the major negative impact of pollution on the health of Romanians. We also offered potential solutions that could be implemented locally or nationally. Now we have come to build a parallel air quality monitoring network (AerLive.ro). At the end of 2018, we launched a report in which on a scale from 1 to 10, we evaluated the way in which the largest cities in Romania (ORS Report) fight pollution. Not a single city passed. ”

Ștefan Voinea – Romanian Health Observatory

Complex measures with medium and long term strategy (6 months – 5 – 10 years) 

Trams are the greenest means of urban public transportation, but only if they are modernized. Pictured above is a modern tram in Saint Denis, a suburb in Paris. Photo: Guillohmz / Dreamstime.com 

18. Construction of green roofs on schools and other buildings, especially in densely populated areas. Bucharest has over 7 million square meters in terraces, that have temperatures as high as 70 degrees Celsius during the summer. The use of a combination of green roofs (sedum plants) and semi-transparent solar panels would increase the green area of ​​the city by more than 30%. This would have an immediate effect on the urban heat island, which traps hot air above the city, raising the temperature and exacerbating pollution.

19. Planting forests around the city and creating green axes that cross the city. These axes can be 50-100 meters in width and can include bicycle lanes and pedestrian spaces surrounded by greenery, thus becoming a much healthier alternative to the boulevards full of car traffic.

20. Installation of air purifiers in nurseries, kindergartens, schools, hospitals, public spaces. This measure should only be temporary and solely taken in the areas where the reduction of air pollution cannot be achieved within a reasonable time.

21. Investment in underground public transport and in light surface metro as the main means of transport in the city. The subway is the most efficient public transport solution both in terms of pollution and energy consumption.

22. Reconfiguration of transit traffic to bypass the city (park & ​​ride, belt, commuter trains, etc.). For this to be successful, the Ministry of Transport must come up with a strategy, because the municipalities do not have the financial capacity to execute such projects on their own.

23. Increasingly higher taxation of individual cars at a local level in order to encourage the use of public transport. Charging is done in parallel with the previous measures, gradually, in order to quantify the impact of each measure.

24. Reconfiguration of the city for increased pedestrianization in key areas of the cities (not only in the city center). The creation of local event hubs in each neighborhood basically reduces traffic in the city.

25. Reconfiguration of boulevards to encourage public transport, cycling and electric scooters, and widening sidewalks and green spaces that act as a barrier to pollution.

Obviously, just listing such measures is not enough. They should be debated in the coming months by candidates for local  municipalities, as well as taken on by political parties that will be providing local city councillors. Romania can no longer wait for grandiose plans that take 20 years to come to fruition, while a quarter of a million Romanians die prematurely every decade due to pollution.