Seasonal air pollution presents a major health risk in the Western Balkans during winter months, causing an estimated 5,000 related premature deaths annually. The pollution affects worker productivity, causes transportation disruptions, and, during winter months, spurs anti-pollution demonstrations throughout the region.
How Hazardous Levels of Air Pollution Formed in the Western Balkans
According to a research paper published by environmental organizations in February 2019, this hazardous level of pollution has several sources, with old and ineffective power stations likely being the primary cause. The 16 coal-fueled power plants in the Western Balkans emitted more sulphur dioxide than all the 250 coal-powered plants in the European Union combined. Sulphur dioxide is a known air pollutant and can react with other compounds in the atmosphere to form small particles that are harmful to health. Other sources that contribute significantly to the hazardous levels of pollution are high-emissions vehicles and industry, as well as energy poverty that forces people to burn plastic, rubber, and other possibly toxic materials for heating.
Health Effects of Air Pollution
Workers deal with health effects from pollution more than 120 days out of the year. The Health and Environment Alliance estimates that the economic burden on the Western Balkans totals EUR 3.6 billion (USD 4 billion) annually in publicly funded health expenses and accounts for more than 350,000 lost workdays across the population each year.
When the pollution is inhaled for periods of months or years, particulate matter may damage the lining of the lungs and cause tissue to become permanently scarred, thereby reducing lung function. With that said, only a few hours of exposure to such pollution may irritate the respiratory system of even healthy individuals and can lead to negative health consequences for those with pre-existing cardiorespiratory diseases such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema. Such individuals are particularly sensitive to poor air quality and will generally experience more serious health effects.
Transportation Disruptions Resulting from Air Pollution
Reduced visibility and smog caused by the hazardous levels of air pollution frequently prompt transport disruptions in the region. Airport authorities in Sarajevo and Skopje, for example, are routinely forced to cancel hundreds of flights annually and redirect hundreds more to other airports in the region. In addition, visibility can be significantly diminished on highways, causing dangerous driving conditions, which are exacerbated by difficult winter conditions and underdeveloped road networks, particularly in remote areas.
Government and Social Response to Pollution
Regional governments have been unable to address the causes of dangerous levels of pollution during the winter, and no country in the region has a holistic long-term plan for tackling the issue. While minor government actions are addressing the issue, such as subsidizing more eco-friendly heating devices for households, no major improvement will take place without a complete overhaul of the energy sector, with a greater emphasis on renewable energy; such a move is unlikely to materialize in the next 10 years.
Anti-pollution demonstrations are likely throughout winter in the region. Such protests are organized as a form of pressure by civil activists on regional governments to invest more resources into combating pollution. The demonstrations tend to have attendance in the low hundreds and generally cause minimal disruptions. Although none of these protests have turned violent so far, the possibility for isolated clashes at future demonstrations cannot be completely ruled out as frustrations with continued poor air quality grow.
Advice for Organizations and Personnel in the Region
If you have employees in the Western Balkans, help protect their health and relay the following information:
- Individuals with pre-existing medical conditions, particularly respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, should minimize nonessential travel to the region from November to March. If travel is necessary, it is recommended to limit the time spent outdoors on days when air pollution is at dangerous levels and wear anti-pollution masks when outdoors. Travelers can monitor daily levels of air pollution, as well as air pollution forecasts for the next several days, at www.aqicn.org
- Allow additional time for travel and adjust your speed according to the road conditions.
- Maintain flexibility in travel plans.
- Confirm airport status before checking out of accommodations.
- Avoid all protests as a standard security precaution.
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