Air quality

I live on the fourth floor of a street-facing apartment block on Üllői út. When I was doing the rounds of flats all those years ago, the ever helpful Márta told me that I’d have to give ‘something for something’. If I found the right layout, then I’d have to sacrifice a view. If I found the best deal, then I’d have to live without an elevator. If I found the greatest kitchen, the loo would most likely be in the bathroom. Something for something, she said.

I found the perfect layout with a great kitchen and a separate loo, but I had to give up any notion of quiet. Truth be told, I don’t hear the traffic any more. I’m used to it. It doesn’t bother me. But those days when I open the front windows to air the flat out, I realise what I’ve lost. Clean air.

exhaustOn a bad day, it takes just ten minutes for the exhaust fumes to permeate the two front rooms of my flat. Just walking into the room is like walking into a closed garage where a car has been idling for hours. I can practically taste the carbon monoxide, the sulfur dioxide, the nitrogen dioxide, the benzene, the ozone, and the particulate matter in its various sizes. But that’s on a bad day.

bad airI never worried unduly about it. It was a rare enough event that my days for opening the windows coincided with a bad air day in Budapest. But lately it seems like it happens three out of four times. And last week, on Sunday morning, with very little traffic on the road, it was particularly bad. I could see the smog hovering like a blanket at throat level.

Various websites tell me that air pollution in Budapest is classified as moderate. So I checked with the European Environment Agency and discovered that, as with many other parts of Europe, the level of ground-level ozone is on the rise. And in cities like ours, levels of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides occasionally (increasingly, I’d say) ‘exceed the health limit values near main traffic routes’.

pollutionBut forget the -ides… it’s the fine particles that put us at most risk in terms of air quality. And way back in 2004, more than ten years ago, about 170 people in
100 000 died prematurely from long-term exposure to high PM concentrations in Hungary.

That shocked me on two levels. No studies have been published by the EEA since 2004 on Hungary? Air pollution can kill?

A friend of mine making one of their semi-regular trips to Budapest from Ireland, commented recently on the poor quality of air in Pest. He said it was a combination of exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke. And while my knee-jerk reaction was to rise up in defence of my adopted city, I had to agree. It’s bad. And it’s getting worse.

Many moons ago, in another lifetime, I was sitting outside a restaurant in Carlsbad, California, having a quiet cigarette. A rather precocious child passed me by, complaining loudly to her mother that ‘that lady’ was ‘polluting’ her air. As they both climbed in to their SUV, I wondered who was doing the most damage.

For every study out there that says that second-hand smoke is more carcinogenic than exhaust fumes, there’s another that says the exact opposite. Both are bad. Both are noxious. Both taste awful. And knowing that I contribute in some small way to this might, once and for all, make me quit.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 March 2015