The air we can´t breathe

The air quality in Poland is one of the worst in Europe. And while Krakow is the most polluted city in the country, this year things are looking up thanks to a new regional law meant to cut polluting emissions. However, 100 kilometers south, up in the Polish Tatra Mountains polluting agents are still widespread, proving to be a menace for neighboring Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Photo: CreativeCommons/ Gregorz Bednarczyk

On Friday, January 15th 2016 many Cracovians witnessed a historical breakthrough for their city. On that day the Assembly of Lesser Poland, the region Krakow is the capital of, approved a ban on coal and solid fossil fuels used for domestic heating. 1 The approval of the new law ended a two-year struggle between Lesser Poland’s regional assembly and the region’s Supreme Administrative Court, the latter having blocked an earlier resolution 2 banning coal in August 2014 on non-constitutional grounds. 3

However, this time the ban, something thousands of locals have been fighting for over the last five years, was approved. The new law states that by September 2019 not a single household in Kraków is to be heated with coal, wood or any other solid fossil fuels. This is a significant victory for environmental associations and the air pollution activist group, Krakow Smog Alarm (Krakowski Alarm Smogowy), which raised Cracovians’ awareness of the deadly cocktail of polluting agents looming over their town. Krakow Smog Alarm’s spokesperson, Anna Dworakowska, told the V4 Revue that, “this total ban on solid fossil fuel is quite a restrictive piece of legislation, but given that Krakow lies in a valley, surrounded by hills with no winds blowing and very bad air circulation, such a measure is needed if we want to improve the quality of the air we breathe.” 4

Why Krakow chokes

Krakow is one of the most beautiful towns in Europe, its historic centre making it onto the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1978; it is also the most popular place in Poland, with about 10 million tourists visiting the town in 2015 alone. 5 However, the former Polish capital also holds another and much less enviable record, being widely regarded as the most polluted town in the nation. In 2013 the European Environment Agency (EEA) rated Krakow the 3rd most polluted city in Europe 6 and in 2014 the World Health Organization (WHO) included Krakow among the most polluted cities on Earth, ranking the town 8th out of 575 cities for dangerous emission levels. 7 One year later, a study published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics by scientists working at the International Institute for Applied System Analysis in Vienna (IIASA), showed how Krakow would be one of the three most polluted cities in Europe by 2030 if they continue burning solid fossil fuels at current rates. 8

Although the city has been dealing with poor air quality for many years, there have been some recent improvements with industrial pollution due to the closing of some of Krakow’s most polluting factories, but this was because of dwindling profits rather than environmental concerns. However, the issue of house-heating is still topical, as 7-10% Krakovian households still use coal as fuel, relying on this abundant black solid combustible to warm themselves up. Add to this, that a good deal of the 24,000 coal-burners used in the city 9 are out of date, and the coal they’re fed often of bad quality, and it’s easy to see why household emissions make up for a significant part of Krakow’s air pollution.

Krakow’s massive industrialization also plays a part in the region’s poor air quality. Back in 1949, a site near Krakow was chosen as the place to build the new “ideal” town of Nowa Huta (meaning “New Iron Foundry“), which was centered around the largest steel mill in Poland. The steelworks’ tall chimneys sprouted out dark thick fumes day and night, blackening the air above and plastering Krakow’s building façades with a film of coke. On top of this, the city had (and still has) to deal with the polluting emissions generated by the three coal-fired power plants, Krakow, Skawina and Trzebinia, which operate in Lesser Poland.

The steelworks in Nowa Huta provided steady work for residents, and local authorities focused on increasing industrial production rather than monitoring air quality. People in Krakow even fell ill or died due to respiratory diseases, but for 40 years nobody raised their voice. Only with the collapse of socialist Poland in 1989, did something begin to stir in Krakow. On February 2nd 1990 the very first issue of Gazeta Krakowska, the local edition of the national daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, published an article about the town’s poor air quality on its front page. 10 Over the next 20 years, the local press published more articles on air pollution, but these didn’t lead to any concrete steps or campaigns to change the situation.

It was only in the 2010 that actions aimed at tackling Krakow’s polluted air, which at least three generations of residents had been breathing, were suggested. Marek Józefiak, a climate and energy campaigner at Polish Green Network (Polska Zielona Sieć), told the V4 Revue that, 11 “the turning point for many Poles was a 2013 study by the European Environment Agency, which reported that there were more people dying from air pollution than from car accidents every year in Poland.”  “That was an eye opener, he said.” 12

Krakow Smog Alarm, founded in December 2012, has intensified the poor air quality debate, exerting pressure on politicians and local authorities to improve local legislation on anti-pollution measures. Today the group, which calls itself an, “apolitical, public initiative of Cracovians who want to live in the city and breathe air that is safe for their health and life,” counts 35,700 followers on Facebook 13 and organizes many local events, manifestations and online petitions.

Particulates matter

There are many different names for the most dangerous air polluting agents: “atmospheric particulate matter,” “particulate matter,” “particulates” or, to keep it simple, “PM.”  But that’s not all one need to know when assessing and measuring air pollution. Particulates, a mixture of microscopic particles and liquid droplets suspended in the air and made up of acids (including nitrates and sulfates), organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles, are categorized as “suspended particulate matter” (SPM), “respirable suspended particle” (PM10), “fine particles” (PM2.5) or “ultrafine particles” (UFP). However, what makes the news when air pollution is discussed is mostly PM10 and PM2.5 emissions, and how many micrograms (µg) of each of these can be found in one cubic meter (m3) of air.

Monitoring and limiting PM concentration levels is important because they include inhalable particles that are tiny enough to reach the thoracic region of the respiratory system. Depending on the length of exposure to PM10 and PM2.5, the health effects of inhalable particulates include respiratory diseases, cardiovascular problems and lung cancer. Those with pre-existing lung or heart disease, as well as children and elderly people, are particularly vulnerable. Add to this benzo(a)pyrene, a highly carcinogenic hydrocarbon mainly produced from wood burning and motor vehicle operation, and you have a dangerous and sometimes lethal combination.

Another important distinction to make is between “low-stack” emissions, which are generated by the solid fossil fuels used for domestic heating (including benzo(a)pyrene), and “stack“ emissions, which come from the chimneys of factories and coal-fired power plants. Today in Poland it is estimated that 87% of benzo(a)pyrene, and 52% of PM10 come from low-stack emissions. 14

The data gathered by a monitoring station in Aleja Krasińskiego, one of Krakow’s thoroughfares, show that the daily limit of 50 µg of PM10 per one cubic meter (m3) of air was exceeded on 200 different days in 2015, the worst one of them on November 3rd with 265 µg/m3. 15 Equally worrisome is that the monthly average of PM10 was above the 50 µg/m3 limit seven months out of the year. “In Krakow on average there are 150 days a year in which norms for PM10 are exceeded, and according to EU legislation that cannot happen for more than 35 days a year,” confirms Dworakowska. That’s why on December 10th 2015 the EU Commission filed a complaint against Poland for, “persistently exceeding the daily limit values for the airborne particles (PM10) in 35 out of 46 air quality zones for the last five years.” 16 If the EU Court of Justice agrees with the Commission, Poland will have to pay the common EU budget huge fines.

Given the daily PM10 limit of 50 µg/m3 established by the EU air quality standards, 17 it would seem logical that all countries joining the EU28 would adopt the same threshold when assessing the dangers of particulate matter levels. Unfortunately, each country establishes its own air quality level alerts. France and Italy, for example, have PM10 alert levels between 80-100 µg/m3 of air; when these are surpassed, anti-pollution measures are put into action. In Poland the threshold is three times higher – a staggering 300 µg/m3.

“It’s hard breathing when there are 150 micrograms per cubic meter and yet, according to Polish standards and laws, such a concentration of polluting agents is moderate,” said Józefiak, adding that, “our particulate matters limits were lower in 2012. By raising them we are hiding from the problem and sweeping the truth under the carpet.” That’s why in Polish terms neither Krakow nor Warsaw are particularly affected by pollution as they seldom reach 300 µg/m3 of PM10, even though they rise above the EU threshold at least 100 days out of the year.

Things don’t seem any better when looking at benzo(a)pyrene levels in Poland. Even though there’s not a critical threshold established by the EU, it is widely acknowledged that any concentration above 1 nanogram (ng) per cubic meter of air is potentially dangerous for human health. In 2012 the average level of benzo(a)pyrene measured in Poland was about 6 ng/m3, with just three other countries in Europe exceeding 1 ng/m3. However all three countries – Slovenia, Estonia and the Czech Republic – still stand below 2 ng/m3. 18

As for fine particles, PM2.5, alert levels are even more subjective. Whereas the WHO’s PM2.5 guidelines call for annual concentrations below 10 µg/m3 of air, 19 and the US’s threshold is 12ug/m3, 20 the EU’s limit is comparatively lax, standing at 25 µg/m3, which Poland still fails to meet: Krakow’s 2014 yearly PM2.5 average was 40 µg/m3. 21

Poland’s widespread poor air quality has taken its toll on the population’s health. It is estimated that between 40,000 and 45,000 people suffer early deaths each year due to pathologies related to the country’s air pollution. 22 The social and healthcare costs are hard to quantify, but Dworakowska said that in Lesser Poland alone, “the consequences of air pollution cost around 670 million euros a year, which,” she added, “is much more than what we spend fighting poor air quality every year.”

Dr Tadeusz Zielonka, a member of the Polish Respiratory Society (FERS), warned the V4 Revue of numerous health dangers: “We have long known that air pollution causes respiratory diseases and cancer. In recent years, poor air quality has been shown to also affect the cardiovascular system. Moreover, air pollution is sometimes instrumental in causing heart attacks and strokes. We also have medical evidence that polluting agents can cause metabolic diseases and neurological disorders,” he said. 23

Catching your breath in the Tatra

Andrzej Bargiel is a 27-year-old Polish ski mountaineer who currently lives in the town of Zakopane up in the Tatra Mountains, 100 kilometers south of Krakow. In a short video released by Podhalański Smog Alarm (Podhalański Alarm Smogowy) – a local group of citizens fighting against air pollution – we see him running and climbing to the top of a snowy mountain peak, struggling to catch his breath along the way. “I know how it feels to be breathless,” he says. “In Zakopane everyone is a passive smoker. I smoke 3,500 cigarettes a day. You do too.” 24

At the end of the 19th century famous and wealthy Poles were first driven to Zakopane by the beauty of the surrounding Tatra peaks and its pristine mountain air. No wonder that this little village of mountaineers was soon turned into a climatic health resort, where composer Karol Szymanowski and artist Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, among others, lived for some time. Today the Polish mountain ski resort town is dubbed the, “winter capital of Poland,” and is visited by up to 3 million tourists each year.[25]

And yet, Zakopane is also one of the most polluted towns in Poland with benzo(a)pyrene and particulate matters levels that are sometimes even higher than the ones measured in Krakow. Józefiak of the Polish Green Network pointed out the severity: “In the first days of 2016, Zakopane faced the highest smog peak in three years. On January 3rd the PM10 level was 223 µg/m3, 446% of the average daily limit of 50 µg/m3. And thousands of people in Zakopane celebrated New Year’s Eve dancing and toasting outdoors, while PM10 levels were seven to eight times higher than the limit,” he said. Podhalański Smog Alarm’s data for the last night of 2015 confirmed that PM10 levels in Zakopane had reached a 10pm peak of 398 µg/m3, with a daily average level of 146 µg/m3. 25

Air pollution across borders

Zakopane lies less than 10 kilometers from the Slovak border and about 50 kilometers from the Czech Republic; four national parks – two in Poland and two in Slovakia – are located within 40 kilometers of the mountain town. Depending on weather and wind conditions, PM10 and secondary particles – those formed in the atmosphere from other pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, ammonia and volatile organic compounds – can easily cross Slovakia and the Czech Republic’s borders.

Dr Gregor Kiesewetter, an atmospheric physicist at the IIASA, told the V4 Revue that, “once airborne, particulate matters can be transported by winds for considerable distances of a few hundred kilometers: the smaller the particles, the farther they are transported,” he said. 26 Dr Kiesewetter warns that it’s especially secondary particles that can be transported quite far. Józefiak echoes those concerns: “we have to take the often underrated effects of secondary particles emissions into account.” That’s why transboundary air pollution is a concern for neighboring countries affected by Poland’s polluting agents, on top of the amount they make on their own.

In Moravia-Silesia, the once highly industrialized Czech region dubbed “the steel heart of the country” in socialist times, Polish sources of pollution have been in the news both for PM10 and PM2.5 emissions. A study by the Ostrava Institute of Public Health, located in Moravia-Silesia’s capital city, estimated that the combined effect of industrial production and household heating from Poland in 2013 was responsible for up to 37% of PM10 in the region. 27 And Dr Kiesewetter’s data on the region’s atmospheric PM2.5 levels points to similar figures: “the model we developed for Ostrava attributes about 40% of PM2.5 levels measured there to transboundary transport of pollution,” he says. Czech newspapers report that the air quality in the region is particularly poor in winter, and that every time the wind is blowing from the Krakow area, PM10 and PM2.5 levels in Moravia-Silesia increase. 28

A similar situation is experienced in Slovakia with particulate matter levels worsening in the winter months. Daniel Lešinský, head of the Centre for Sustainable Alternatives (CEPTA) in Zvolen told the V4 Revue that, “based on available EU studies on particulate matters, 29 and with west and north-west winds blowing, it is clear that Polish PM10 and PM2.5 cross the border, ending up here; the same thing happens with Czech pollution coming from Moravia-Silesia.” 30

Although the Czech Republic has been reducing its own production of air polluting agents over the last few years, they seem reluctant to get rid of solid fossil fuels altogether. On the contrary, the current Sobotka government’s October 2015 decision to lift coal mining limits for the Bilina mine, 31 located in the North-Bohemia region, shows the importance of Czech coal.

In Slovakia, although 6,000 premature deaths related to air pollution are reported annually, 32 air quality is slowly improving as well.  But as Lešinský states: “We still have big brown coal-fired power stations, old vehicles on the roads and many people who keep burning wood in old boilers and stoves at home, which hardly helps.” The good news is that, new air-quality standards are included in EU-funded programs for 2014-2020 33, and under newly approved legislation, Slovakia is going to create its first “low emission traffic zones“ (LEZs), limiting the number of older cars in some cities.

Breathing a sigh of relief

The newly approved ban on solid fossil fuels in Krakow is a significant step towards cutting back the city’s low-stack polluting emissions. However, this measure wouldn’t be popular or effective without providing the local population with incentives to get rid of their coal-burners, especially those who are not well off and use coal because of it’s affordability. That’s why Krakow is offering generous subsidies to help people leave solid fossil fuels behind. Those applying for coal boiler replacements can get up to 1,800 euros, 34 while a heating allowance of 18 euros per square meter of heated space can be granted to those passing from coal to a more environmental friendly source. 35

According to Dworakowska, “most of these subsidies have been in place for a couple of years now, while the one encouraging coal boiler replacements has been available for even longer, but not promoted very well.” She claims that about 3,000 of Krakow’s coal-boilers were replaced in 2015, up from 200 replacements a few years ago. When looking for replacements to coal-burners and solid fossil fuel heating sources, Cracovians have plenty of choices. Two affordable options are gas heating or connecting to the district heating system; while more expensive alternatives are heat pumps and electric heating. The goal is to reach 8,000 replacements by 2017, so that the city’s remaining 24,000 coal-boilers will be gone by September 2019, when they’ll officially become illegal, thanks to the new ban.

With the EU recently allocating 120 million euros to the cause, and the regional authorities helping the transition to other energy sources, the future looks promising for Krakow and Lesser Poland.  36 Although much has been done here over the last few years to improve air quality, much is still needed to fill the gap with other European countries. After all, London introduced their Clean Air Act back in 1956, 37 and Dublin banned coal in 1990. 38 “Today we look towards the Czech Republic as a model of how pollution can be tackled effectively in a context similar to the one we have here,” stressed Anna Dworakowska. She pointed out that the CR has, “been introducing regulatory changes that include improved coal quality and coal-boiler norms, while lending massive support to thermo-modernization,” and then added, “that’s the direction Poland should head to.”



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  2. “Krakow bans solid fossil fuel burning for domestic heating,”,  November 26, 2013, accessed January 20,  2016,
  3. “Court Overturns Smog-Busting Coal Ban in Kraków, Poland,”, August 22, 2014, accessed January 20, 2016,
  4. Anna Dworakowska, all further quotes taken from a phone interview with the author, January 19, 2016.
  5. Krakow Convention Bureau, “Record year for Kraków’s tourist business,” December 17, 2015, accessed on January 18, 2016,,251,komunikat,record_year_for_krakow_s_tourist_business.html
  6. EEA ranking based on both PM10 and PM2.5 emissions, European Environment Agency; “Percentage of urban population resident in areas where pollutant concentrations are higher than selected limit/target values, 2001-2011 (EU-27),” September 11, 2015, accessed on January 20, 2016,
  7. WHO ranked Krakow 8th out of 575 cities for PM2.5 emissions, and 145th out of 1100 cities for PM10 levels; World Health Organization, “Ambient (outdoor) air pollution in cities database 2014,” accessed on January 20, 2016,
  8. G. Kiesewetter, J. Borken-Kleefeld, W. Schöpp, C. Heyes, P. Thunis, B. Bessagnet, E. Terrenoire, H. Fagerli, A. Nyiri, and M. Amann, “Modelling street level PM10 concentrations across Europe: source apportionment and possible futures,“ Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 15, 2015, accessed on January 23, 2016,
  9. Beth Gardiner, “The air is stinking, it’s dirty: the fight against pollution in Kraków,” The Guardian, April 13, 2015, accessed on January 20, 2016,
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  12. European Environment Agency “Air quality in Europe – 2015 report” November 30, 2015, accessed on January 20, 2016,
  13. Polski Alarm Smogowy & National Centre for Emissions Management (KOBiZE), accessed on January 20, 2016, & – in Polish
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  15. European Commission, “Poland referred to Court for breaching the limit of small particulate matter,” December 10, 2015, accessed on January 20, 2016,
  16. European Commission, “Air Quality Standards,” November 19, 2015, accessed on January 20, 2016,
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  18. World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe, “Health effects of particulate matters,” accessed January 20, 2016,
  19. United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Revised Air Quality  Standards for Particle Pollution and Updates to the Air Quality Index (AQI),” December 14, 2012, accessed on January 20, 2016,
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  21. Polski Alarm Smogowy, accessed on January 20, 2016,
  22. Tadeusz Zielonka, quote taken from a mail exchange with the author, January 20, 2016.
  23. YouTube, accessed on January 20, 2016,
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  25., “W Sylwestra smog w Zakopanem był większy niż w Krakowie,” January 1, 2016, accessed on January 20, 2016,
  26. Gregor Kiesewetter, all further quotes taken from a mail exchange with the author, January 21, 2016.
  27. Prague Daily Monitor, “LN: Moravia-Silesia needs general plan to lower pollution,” December 31, 2015, accessed on January 20, 2016,
  28. Ibid.
  29. European Environment Agency, “European Union emission inventory report 1990–2013 under the UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP),” June 30, 2015, accessed January 20, 2016,
  30. Daniel Lešinský, all further quotes taken from a mail exchange with the author, January 20, 2016.
  31. Prague Post, “Government agrees to lift coal mining limits at Bilina,” October 19, 2015, accessed on January 25, 2016,
  32. European Environment Agency “Air quality in Europe – 2015 report” November 30, 2015, accessed on January 20, 2016,
  33. WelcomEurope, “Structural funds in Slovakia for 2014-2020,” October 1, 2014, accessed on January 20, 2016,
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  35. MOPS Kraków, “Lokalny Program Osłonowy,” June 24, 2015, accessed on January 20, 2016, – in Polish.
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  38. Irish Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, “Smoky Coal Ban,” accessed on January 20, 2016,
Lorenzo Berardi

Lorenzo Berardi

is a freelance journalist based in Warsaw. He is a contributor for Lettera43, The Varsovian, Polonicult and former correspondent of Lettera43 from the UK.