Krakow’s Air Quality Among the Worst in the World
It is impossible not to notice the thick smogs that periodically blanket Krakow, or to wonder what they are doing to your lungs, but even on seemingly clear days the city’s air is among the most polluted in Europe with levels of contaminants frequently exceeding World Health Organisation safe limits.
Krakow is now firmly established as one of Europe’s top tourist destinations, attracting 15.8 million visitors in 2013. Multinational companies are flocking here, as are young people unable to find jobs elsewhere in Europe. How long before awareness of the city’s poor air quality begins to make the city unattractive, threatening its economic health as well as the health of the people who live here?
According to the air-pollution activism group Krakowski Alarm Smogowy (Krakow Smog Alarm), the city has some of the poorest air quality in the world. 2014 figures from the World Health Organisation rank Krakow as 215/1624 cities globally that record annual mean concentrations of PM2.5 in their air.
PM2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns, like toxic organic compounds and heavy metals) and PM10 (smaller than 10 microns, such as most factory smoke) are monitored because they have been shown to be a major cause of asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular problems, respiratory diseases, birth defects and premature death. A 2013 study across nine European countries that for every increase of 10 μg/m3 in PM10, the lung cancer rate rose 22%—for every 10 μg/m3 increase in PM2.5, which can penetrate more deeply into the lungs, it rose rises by 36%.
Placing these figures in perspective, it is important to note that many cities in the world that probably have worse air quality than Krakow’s do not officially record pollution levels. In other words: ‘where annual mean concentrations are recorded’ does not include what are probably the most polluted cities globally.
Despite this small consolation, Cracovians have become increasingly aware, and angry, about the quality of their air. Krakowski Alarm Smogowy was formed in December 2012, and as of November 2015 has amassed 31,000 followers on Facebook. Describing itself as an: “apolitical, public initiative of Cracovians who want to live in the city and breathe air that is safe for their health and life,” the group has also created several popular online petitions, the most recent of which was presented to new President Andrzej Duda on a visit to the city.
How bad is it?
According to measurements taken by the Małopolska air monitoring network, the problem is very bad indeed. The network consists of 11 monitoring stations in the region, three of which are in Krakow (Al. Krasińskiego, ul. Bujaka, ul. Bulwarowa). Nine different pollutants are measured every day and their levels are reported on the network’s website.
Krakowski Alarm Smogowy republishes these figures on its Facebook page, and points out some worrying trends: “In December 2012, residents of Kurdwanów could breathe safe air on only three days of the month, while in the city centre there was only one day with safe air.” In November 2015, pm10 levels have reached 281,2 µg/m3, over 540% “normal” levels— though research has shown that any level is risky.
Particulates are not the only problem. Levels of highly carcinogenic benzo[a]pyrene and nitrogen dioxide, which has been shown to inhibit lung function, are also high. Unsafe nitrogen dioxide levels are only recorded in three Polish cities: Warsaw, Wrocław and Krakow.
Two things work against Krakow’s air quality: pollution and geographical factors that prevent the dispersal of pollution. The two major sources of the most harmful pollutants are domestic solid fuel furnaces and motor vehicles, but local industry and air-borne pollutants from other parts of Poland and neighbouring countries also contribute.
Geographically, Krakow sits in a valley, which tends to concentrate pollutants, and experiences a low number of windy days, which means pollutants are not readily dispersed.
Clean air activists are focusing on the problem of domestic solid fuel furnaces as a major source of pollution, and one that could be eliminated relatively easily. Only about 10 percent of Krakow’s households use solid fuel furnaces for heating. Unfortunately, these furnaces are also frequently used to incinerate domestic waste, which is probably the leading cause of the most harmful pollutants. The problem becomes particularly visible during the winter heating season – always the period that sees the most extreme particulate and benzo[a]pyrene levels.
According to Krakowski Alarm Smogowy: “The fact that [10 percent of Cracovians] are not connected to the municipal heating network should be seen as a considerable defeat in Krakow’s development.” The organisation claims that: “A total ban on solid fuel burning in domestic furnaces constitutes the optimal solution, with the greatest ecological effect. It would allow for such a significant reduction in PM10s and benzo[a]pyrene that the problem of air pollution in Krakow would be solved.”
Bans of this kind have been successfully introduced elsewhere to tackle air pollution, most notably in the United Kingdom in 1956 (the Clean Air Act), and Ireland between 1990 and 2003. Outlawing the use of ‘smoky’ coal in Dublin in 1990 is believed to have resulted in 350 fewer deaths annually, and a 20m Euro saving in public health costs.
The obvious barrier to this solution is that it would deprive a significant number of Cracovians of their only source of domestic heating. Finding the money to provide these people with alternatives, or to offer subsidies to allow them to find their own alternatives, is a problem in a city that is already in a prolonged budget crisis.
Krakowski Alarm Smogowy recognises this problem but suggests that: “Local authorities should define a transition period (e.g. five years) and secure subsidies for the replacement of coal furnaces with sources that do not contribute to air pollution. Krakow should also develop a support programme for the poor in order to minimise the risk of fuel poverty.”
In October 2015 President Duda signed a revised environmental law, with the support of Krakow Mayor Jacek Majchrowski, aiming to rid the city of coal furnaces by 2019. It ends a period of back-and-forth struggle between the The Małopolska regional assembly and the Supreme Administrative Court, which had blocked an earlier resolution.
Yet the problems of funding and enforcement remain. Krakow has had a programme subsidising the replacement of solid fuel furnaces for many years, but it is proceeding at a glacial rate. Krakowski Alarm Smogowy note that, at the current rate of replacement, it could be decades before the last domestic furnaces are gone. One problem is that poorer Cracovians are unenthusiastic about getting rid of their coal-burning heaters, even with financial help, because it will simply result in higher fuel bills for their new heating system.
27 thoughts on “Krakow’s Air Quality Among the Worst in the World”
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You reap what you sow.
Stupid Cracovians can’t live without their cars. Just like most Poles.
Yes heating is also a problem, but only during the winter period. Cars on the other hand are driving 365days/24hours. Just show me a cracovian professor, priest or local politician on a bike. Or look how many cars drive up and down the streets with big adverts http://www.krakowmiasto.pl/files/pict/2012-02-23/krakow-reklama-mobilna-przyczepy-reklamowe-przyczepa-reklamowa-z-naglosnieniem-5TczNjI3OT_o.jpg polluting the air.
Pure stupidity and anarchy. May as many cracovoans die as soon as possible. Greetings from Charles Darvin…
Pole, don`t be silly. Exhaust fumes from cars is 20% of all Krakow pollution.
Many Poles burn their garbage; plastic bottles etc. in their home furnaces, you can smell this in the evenings, even in the villages. Polaks must be some of the dumbest people on earth, don’t they know that burning plastic is bad for your health … so asked my friend why they do this, she said it’s because they don’t want to pay the 10-15zl for garbage pick-up…but they can buy vodka every few days …Poland – one big village …
Pole: Well, aren’t you the enviromental-nazi of the week! Hitler would have been proud to call you his son.
Pole: Air quility in Poland is shit. I was just looking over at aqcin.org, and air quality in say, Warsaw, in winder, is almost Bejing-level god-awful now, and Krakow about half as bad, which sucks! Compare to say, Paris or Berlin, where they barely register anything…
We need to do something, not least discourage people from burning plastic (congratulations, one up on the amazing stupidity scale), and, what I personally witnessed, burning batteries. Slowly clapping. Genius. Thank you so much for killing us all.
3 years ago, krakow post was saying about air pollution that local government takes measures to reduce the problem http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1915
3 years ago, Krakow was the 16th most polluted city in Europe. Today, Krakow is the 3rd most polluted city in Europe.
Difficult to understand why nothing is done…Lack of money maybe, but I would rather say that it is more lack of political will.
True that it is difficult to fight against the geographical situation, the lack of wind or the pollution from Silesia. But there is still place to fight against car traffic, domestic furnaces, local industry pollution and promote public transport (unlike with this f***ing new year rise of the price tickets, or the problem you can have finding a machine to buy a ticket with a card or the fun to buy a 5 zl ticket in the bus with the agressivity of the driver…), or bycicle transport…
I always smile when I remember once I had just to finish a ride on a huge highway cause the bicycle path just stopped and I had no alternative. Most of the time I have to ride on the sidewalk even if I risk a fine. Yes, once I saw policeman giving a fine to a biker because he was cycling on the sidewalk just close to the future congres palace, where the bike path vanished since the construction started…
I could continue with the jail risk you take by using a bike a bit drunk…
Long way to do.
Amazing to think how bad the air quality was under Russian/ commie rule 30 years ago when Nowa Huta was operating at full capacity. I recall as a young boy blowing my nose in to a tissue and the “snot” was always black. Having come back on many occasions to the city that my father decided to abandon some 30 years earlier I am always amazed that my “snot” is not black and that I have yet to pick up an eye infection. The air might not be clean now, but it would appear to me that it is a heck of a lot cleaner now than it used to be.
Cools story bro. Now tell us how your s* looks like.
Looks like you mate.
omg. That’s the most stupid thing that I have heard. This must be part of polish DNA. Always accepting the lowest level. Doesn’t matter. “hey, the air today sucks, but it’s better than 30 years ago”. Good way to go.. Today krakow has one of the worst air quality in the world. As soon as I step out of the plane, I can smell this shitty air..
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how will people visit krakow for 2016 world youth day…The government should take necessary steps to reduce the air pollution rate………
Frank, I think tourists should be safe, a week or 2 of breathing in Krakow Air will not kill you. In fact I find the air here quite charming on my bi-annual visits. Its the residents that should be worried by the air quality.
We Krakow men no need fresh air. We not passys.
Just been reading the Guardian’s European Christmas market destinations. Krakow is not among the cities featured. Disappointing.
That won’t stop me from coming over to visit, though. But it looks like the city needs to do something about the problem.
Reduce ,planned monthly stop of the traffic like in othet european major cities. Building 4 huge parking on the 4 external sides of the town,with a monthly low price + free eletrical busses from there to work places, for the people working in krakow and leaving outside…..there are many solution but…
…..unfortunatelly the majority of polish people will react as always: complain on social networks, or at home drinking vodka, avoiding any kind of protest or pression on publics office& institution,meanwhile they will use the care for buy zubruwka at the zabka 10 mt from their houses…
What are you talking about? “At home drinking vodka”? What has this got to do with pollution? And vodka is drunk during a party if so, not just in Poland but all places in Europe. Stop being arrogant and ignorant as it only shows your narrow mind.
If you knew any history of Europe, thanks to Polish protests and joint Solidarity we have freedom in Europe today. Shocking that people like yourself have such limited knowledge on the matter.
Polish protest? ha ha ha ha
Poland should be thankful that at least reappeared on map, as in a certain time was not existing at all. Apart of Auschwitz or other similar depressed stuff or moderately saying GREY COLOR, there isn’t any other thing that Poland is famous of.
Jojo, get urself first an education then suggest to others. And re-read the comment of the guy before you, “home drinking vodka” was not for what u meant. But I can reply to what you meant: In other europian countries, people don’t drink home as they do widely in Poland at home to bit depression and loneliness. What really wonders me is that foreign people make this pollution a big issue. In the end we will leave, as we dont like the place, but what about YOU? and all other polish people? You will continue to live in such shit. So instead of replying with IRONY, just say THANK YOU that we are talking for YOU meanwhile you drink or do whatever depressed things.
Sad to hear this. Krakow has good public transit, but way too many people drive there.
Is there any movement to revert this?
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I have myself a stove in which coal was burnt – until about 1960, when oil burners were introduced. In the 1970ies, nuclear energy delivered cheap electric power, especiall in the night, so night accumulators were installed. But when it is below -5, I still activate the stove, but fill it with wood, off course. Does Poland not have enough firewood? Because wood is not very comfortable, I burn sticks composed of pressed waste from wood processing in the form of coal sticks, but of double size. This pollutes the air much less than coal, so give them to the poor for a low price. We can bring paper, plastic and aluminium garbage to the recycling places, to be sold to China and India. So the amount of payable waste is reduced. Burning waste in the stove is heavily pursued, it can be proven by chemical measurements.
I often visit Krakow from London. This is my first time in winter and I’m amazed at how terrible the air is at the moment. Everything has a layer of toxic soot on it.
We’ve got a problem with fat, greedy dumb folk driving unnecessary diesel vehicles; Krakow has this problem too, but our politicians seem to have put more effort into hybrid buses, encouraging cycling, encouraging low emission vehicles and capping industrial pollution. Your politicians are letting you down.
Shame on those who profit from producing these pollutants.
It’s about 4 years I live in Poland and I confirm poles are definitely amngst the dumbest people on earth,jealous of everybody else success,can’t see the truth even if hits them in their eyes.A burden on europe shoulder really.
i live in krakow almost 4 years now, and i’m an independent documentary filmmaker,
i preparing my new project now about this issue, air pollution, i bieleve that people are aware of this, but i need to do my part in letting people see the danger, and maybe start to behave for good of all,
please if any one speaks polish and english and live in krakow who may be intersted in helping me, i would appreciate, please contact me via email, email@example.com