For Hungary’s poor it’s wood or food. Trash also burns, creating deadly smog

By Marton Dunai and Marton Monus

SAJONEMETI, Hungary (Reuters) – Zoltan Berki usually wakes up before dawn, as his five small children sleep next door, to feed the old iron furnace that stands in a wall cavity to warm up both rooms. This is the only part of his house that he can afford to heat during winter.

Come rain or shine, Berki, a stocky 28-year-old Roma man, cycles an hour to work to save on the bus fare, so he is up anyway.

But he also has to burn some materials before daylight, to conceal the thick black smoke that billows from his chimney when he uses plastic or rubber. Such household pollution is illegal in Hungary, including in this town near the Slovakian border.

People do it anyway. On a foggy winter’s day, dense smoke of different hues spews from nearly every chimney. It stays low in the air, gradually filling the narrow valleys.

“Firewood is expensive,” Berki said one recent afternoon, as his family played around him, crammed into a small room. “Either I buy wood or food. So I go to the forest, or the junkyard, and if we find plastic or rubber we burn that.”

The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled last week that Hungary had breached pollution limits for over a decade in the Sajo river valley, as well as other areas, which could be grounds for financial penalties unless reversed.

The ruling should be seen as “a wake-up call,” European Commission spokeswoman Vivian Loonela said.

The Hungarian government did not respond to a request for comment.

Although Hungary has reduced its carbon emissions in the past decades and is not the worst offender in Europe, pockets of high pollution persist, and rules are rarely enforced, according to locals and environmental rights groups.

The capital Budapest and the southern city of Pecs suffer too, but the situation in the Sajo valley, where pollution and poverty go hand-in-hand, is especially severe.

In Berki’s home, the hand-sized doors of the furnace open with a creak. Berki starts the flames and throws in a wood plank or two to build heat. Then he burns whatever he can. Plastic bottles, cut-up tires and window frames all work. An old shoe often suffices.

Scavenging for material to burn is common for the poorest people in the small, run-down town of Sajonemeti and those nearby, among the most destitute communities in Europe since Communist-era heavy industry vanished 30 years ago, leaving thousands jobless.

Aware of the rules, Berki avoids burning some fuel by day.

“The neighbors can see, and you can also smell it,” he said. “We throw the rubber and the plastic bottles and such things on at night.”

The valley forms a dead end and prevents winds as cold air settles in, so heavy smog can linger for weeks. Several such areas exist in Hungary, together contributing to thousands of premature deaths every year, according to Europe’s top court.


Hungarian environmental groups have been raising the alarm for years.

In 2020 Zsuzsanna F. Nagy, northeastern Hungary’s foremost environmental activist, surveyed locals about their heating practices, and found that while some people burned rubbish, even those who tried to heat homes properly often burned lignite or other coal products that were unfit for home use.

That echoed the assessment of the Clean Air Action Group, a Budapest-based green organization, which said coal types can vary widely, and by using the wrong ones, households could erase gains made by a post-Communist cleanup of industry.

The gap between quality coal and low-grade alternatives can mean a 60-fold difference in particulate emissions, it said.

In Hungary, a country of 10 million people, air pollution causes an annual 13,000 premature deaths, a million people fall sick and billions of euros are lost to economic damage, Clean Air project leader Judit Szego said.

According to the European Environmental Agency, Hungary ranks third in Europe behind Bulgaria and Poland in health damage, losing an annual 1,128 life years per 100,000 residents due to particulate pollution, or small flying dust, alone – compared with about 500 in the UK or 250 in Sweden.

Air pollution can cause allergic reactions, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, the National Public Health Institute said in a 2017 study.

Berki’s five children all use inhalers because they suffer from asthma symptoms, he said. To his father, Zoltan Berki Sr., pollution means chest pain and coughs.

On Sunday, the elder Berki went to dig up leftover coal by hand – a common sight in winter.

The man-made mounds are littered with materials for burning, including logs from the old coal mine rail tracks which are infused with diesel.

“Smokes like hell but burns nicely,” he said as he piled up a few. “We collect what we find and take it home to burn. They heat up nicely, and we can’t afford to buy anything.”

(Additional reporting by Kate Abnett in Brussels; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Deadly political calculations: Why India isn’t fixing its toxic smog problem

A boy rides a bullock cart as smoke billows from paddy waste stubble as it burns in a field near Jewar, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Altaf Hussain

By Neha Dasgupta and Mayank Bhardwaj

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – As pollution levels surged to “severe” and “hazardous” levels in New Delhi, India this week, there was little sign that residents of India’s teeming capital were doing much to protect themselves.

The smog, which is expected to worsen in the next few days, exposed people to as much as 24 times the recommended limits for dangerous particles on Monday. But unlike in many Chinese cities, where face masks are a common sight when smog levels spike, it is still rare to see locals taking measures to reduce their exposure.

Toddlers stand at school bus stops in crisply ironed uniforms, while security guards, street sweepers, and rickshaw drivers spend many hours outside breathing in filthy air – all without any attempt at protection.

Ask middle-class residents whether they have air purifiers in their homes and the answer is invariably no.

This is despite the extensive coverage of the capital’s pollution crisis by local media, including numerous warnings from doctors about massive health hazards, especially for children, the sick and the elderly.

The apparent lack of concern about the toxic air – whether through ignorance, apathy or the blinding impact of poverty -gives federal and local politicians the cover they need for failing to vigorously address the problem, said pollution activists, social scientists, and political experts.

Neither the governing party at federal level nor the main opposition are in power in the capital, giving them little incentive to cooperate with the city authorities.

And while Delhi may have a population of more than 20 million, its importance at voting time – a national election is due by May next year – is insignificant in comparison with states such as neighboring Uttar Pradesh, which has 220 million.

“The tragedy is that there is no political will at all either on the part of the federal government or the state government of Delhi and, as a result, we can see both blaming each other for the crisis that we are in,” said Yogendra Yadav, a political polling expert. “Whatever little government action you get to see is because of the pressure that environmental activists and the Supreme Court get to exert.”


India’s problems with smog extend far beyond Delhi – the nation of 1.3 billion has 14 out of the 15 most polluted cities in the world, according to the World Health Organisation.

But in the capital, at least, this was the year the problem was supposed to be addressed.

After a cocktail of toxic fumes enveloped the area in October and November last year, the Delhi city government declared it a public health emergency and its Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal described the Indian capital as a “gas chamber”. Officials of the federal government said Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office had asked them to ensure that it did not happen again.

But steps taken so far have failed to make much difference, and now there is finger-pointing between Modi’s administration, the Delhi city government, and the governments of states around the capital.

As this year’s crisis has worsened, environment ministers from Punjab and Haryana – whose farmers’ stubble-burning is a major contributor to the haze – failed to turn up for a meeting called by the federal environment ministry last week, sending their civil servants instead.

The farmers have been torching their fields as they get ready for new plantings, despite being offered government subsidies on machinery that would allow them to mulch the material into the ground without lighting fires.

Farmers say the subsidies were not enough to cover the price of the machinery, the cost of running it, and the additional labor needed, especially given higher fuel prices.

India had planned to reduce crop burning by up to 70 percent this year but only a 30 percent drop has been visible so far, according to a government statement last Thursday.

Blaming that as the main reason behind New Delhi’s poisonous air, a spokesman for the city government said: “We can’t take steps in isolation in Delhi; we can’t build a wall.”

The federal government, meanwhile, has attacked the city for doing little to control pollution from dust, vehicles, and industries.

Certainly, there has been little done to reduce the number of heavily polluting vehicles on the roads in and around Delhi despite threats that have been made but not followed through, including one from the Supreme Court-appointed Environmental Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) to ban all private vehicles from the city.

And while the nation’s top court has issued a ruling trying to restrict the use of fireworks on the night of the Hindu festival Diwali, which is on Wednesday, few expect it to be enforced. For one thing, the court’s edict that only “green”, less-polluting firecrackers can be let off between the hours of 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. is likely to be ignored because there are no “green” fireworks for sale in the city.

People pass by an installation of an artificial model of lungs to illustrate the effect of air pollution outside a hospital in New Delhi, India, November 5, 2018. Picture taken November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

People pass by an installation of an artificial model of lungs to illustrate the effect of air pollution outside a hospital in New Delhi, India, November 5, 2018. Picture taken November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis


Most officials expect to wake up to even worse pollution on Nov. 8, as smoke from the festivities mixes with the smog from other sources to create a deadly cocktail. Light seasonal winds and a lack of rain at this time of year means pollution can linger for weeks, as it did last year.

But Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is more concerned about the impact of weak farm incomes, high fuel prices, and whether job creation has been adequate as issues at the polls.

“A holistic approach in the current climate is difficult to envisage as political divisiveness means that politicians are not looking for enduring solutions,” said Pavan K Varma, an official from a regional party in the state of Bihar and former diplomat who lives in Delhi.

Neither is it in the BJP’s interests, or in the interest of the main opposition Congress party, to help Kejriwal’s New Delhi government. In 2015, Kejriwal’s anti-establishment Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party, campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, crushed the BJP and Congress to take control of the city.

For Delhi’s doctors it is a nightmare.

This year, the number of patients with severe lung problems has already gone up by up by 25 percent and is expected to increase further after Diwali, said Doctor Desh Deepak, a chest physician at government-run Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital.

“It’s tragic that children are suffering and we’ll destroy a whole generation if we don’t take cognizance of the fact that pollution needs to be tackled on a war footing,” said Dr Neeraj Jain, head of chest medicine at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in Delhi.

A woman waits to receive treatment for respiratory issues at Ram Manohar Lohia hospital in New Delhi, India, November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

A woman waits to receive treatment for respiratory issues at Ram Manohar Lohia hospital in New Delhi, India, November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

Dipankar Gupta, a leading sociologist who has written books on Indian society, said only heavy state intervention was likely to solve the problem. He pointed to an improvement in the pollution levels in Beijing last year because of strict government measures to curb polluting industries near the Chinese capital.

But that state crackdown still seems a long way from happening in India. The EPCA has announced a variety of steps between Nov. 1-10 as part of an emergency package, including the use of water sprinklers and a complete ban on construction.

But most environmental experts say it is far too little, too late, and is not addressing the biggest pollution sources.

Modi has not publicly addressed the health crisis that has engulfed the capital.

The grim prognosis means that foreign organizations, including embassies in Delhi, are finding it difficult to get top talent to come to the city.

“Staff with young children are increasingly choosing not to come which wasn’t the case a few years ago,” a Western diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Most of the city’s residents are poor, however, and more worried about making enough money to buy food than pollution.

“The daily grind … leaves no room to think about the haze and smog,” said Vimla Devi, who works as a maid in the suburbs of Delhi.

(Additional reporting by David Stanway in BEIJING; Edited by Martin Howell and Alex Richardson)

Lava covers potentially explosive well at Hawaii geothermal plant

Lava from the Kilauea volcano shoots out of a fissure, in the Leilani Estates near Pahoa, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Garci

By Jolyn Rosa

HONOLULU (Reuters) – Lava from Hawaii’s erupting Kilauea volcano has covered a potentially explosive well at a geothermal power station and threatened another, after flowing onto the site, officials said.

The Hawaii Civil Defense Agency said the wells “are stable and secure”, and Hawaii Governor David Ige said that the plant was “sufficiently safe” from the lava that has plowed through backyards and streets and burned dozens of homes.

But lava has never engulfed a geothermal plant anywhere in the world and the potential threat is untested, according to the head of the state’s emergency management agency. Local residents fear an explosive emission of deadly hydrogen sulfide and other gases should wells be ruptured.

The molten rock was expected to continue to flow across the Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV) facility, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Lava flows are seen entering the sea along the coastline during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano May 23, 2018. USGS/J. Ozbolt, Hilo Civil Air Patrol/Handout via REUTERS

Lava flows are seen entering the sea along the coastline during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano May 23, 2018. USGS/J. Ozbolt, Hilo Civil Air Patrol/Handout via REUTERS

Since Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano began a once-in-a-century-scale eruption on May 3, authorities have shutdown the plant, removed 60,000 gallons of flammable liquid, and deactivated wells that tap into steam and gas deep in the Earth’s core.

Magma has drained from Kilauea’s summit lava lake and flowed around 25 miles (40 km) east underground, bursting out of about two dozen giant cracks or fissures near the plant.

The Israeli-owned 38 megawatt plant typically provides around 25 percent of electricity on the Big Island, according to local power utility Hawaii Electric Light.

Operator Ormat Technologies Inc last week said there was no above-ground damage to the plant, but it would have to wait until the situation stabilized to assess the impact of earthquakes and subterranean lava flows on the wells.

Over the weekend, there were more than 250 earthquakes at Kilauea’s summit, with four explosions on Saturday sending ash as high as 12,000-15,000 feet, officials said.

Winds are set to shift on Monday and Tuesday, causing higher concentrations of ash and volcanic smog that will spread west and northwest to affect more populated areas, said National Weather Service meteorologist John Bravender.

Onlookers gather at the foot of the lava bed, as a lava shoots molten rock into the air, in the Leilani Estates near Pahoa, May 27, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Garcia

Onlookers gather at the foot of the lava bed, as a lava shoots molten rock into the air, in the Leilani Estates near Pahoa, May 27, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Garcia

U.S. Marine Corps and National Guard helicopters are on standby for an air evacuation if fissure activity cuts off Highway 130, the last exit route for up to 1,000 coastal residents.

More residents in some sections of the Leilani Estates neighborhood were ordered to immediately evacuate shortly before 8 p.m. “due to a fast moving lava flow from Fissure 7”, a statement from the civil defense agency said.

Officials had no information on how many residents still remained in the neighborhood or how many people might have already left. Local media has reported that about 2,000 people have already evacuated since the new eruptions began.

(Reporting by Joyln Rosa in Honolulu; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Alison Williams)

China wants 23 northern cities put on red alert for smog

Policemen wear protective masks at the Tiananmen Square on an extremely polluted day as hazardous, choking smog continues to blanket Beijing, China

BEIJING (Reuters) – Environmental authorities in China have advised 23 northern cities to issue red alerts, the highest possible air pollution warning, on Friday evening, against the “worst” smog the country has experienced since autumn, state media said.

China issued its first ever red alert for smog in Beijing, the capital, last December, after adopting a color-graded warning system in a crackdown on environmental degradation left by decades of breakneck economic growth.

Officials in Beijing issued a red alert on Thursday after the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) warned of a smog build-up across China’s north, saying the alert was expected to run until Dec. 21.

The ministry has also advised 22 more cities reeling under pollution to issue the red alert warning, the official China Daily said on Friday.

Nine cities, including Jinan in the province of Shangdong were advised to issue the lower-status orange alert, Liu Bingjing, the ministry’s head of air quality management, told the paper.

The notification will be the third joint warning by city governments this month, Liu added.

Regular episodes of smog blanketing northern China this year stem from a combination of local emissions, unfavorable weather and pollutants wafted in from elsewhere, Bai Qiuyong, head of China’s Environmental Monitoring Center, told the paper.

Environmental authorities in Hebei province, which borders capital city Beijing, asked for a level one emergency response from major cities in the region to begin from Friday, according to a post on its official microblog account on China’s Twitter-like Weibo service late on Thursday.

The order requires the large number of heavy polluting industries in these cities, including Tangshan, China’s steel capital, to cut back or halt production until Wednesday.

A chimney of a power plant is pictured among smog as a red alert for air pollution is issued in Beijing, China,

A chimney of a power plant is pictured among smog as a red alert for air pollution is issued in Beijing, China, December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

Environmental group Greenpeace urged the government in a statement on Friday to “strictly punish” factories and plants in Hebei that flout regulations, as it said they have often done during past alerts.

Red alerts are issued in Beijing when the air quality index, a measure of pollutants, is forecast to break 200 for more than four days in succession, surpass 300 for more than two days or overshoot 500 for at least 24 hours.

At each level, the colour-graded warning system prescribes advisories for schools, hospitals and businesses, as well as possible curbs on traffic and construction.

Thresholds for the issue of alerts vary among cities, as do the cautionary measures urged on local residents and businesses at each stage.

Residents of smaller cities near Beijing have previously complained that local government bodies failed to issue warnings when pollution was just as severe as in the capital.

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Tom Hogue)

Italian Cities Take Drastic Steps to Reduce High Air Pollution

A few Italian cities are taking some dramatic steps to reduce the amount of pollution in the air.

Milan is banning all private vehicles like cars and motorcycles from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Monday through Wednesday, according to a posting on the city’s website.

Rome has also introduced some restrictions on motorcycle and moped use due to a high level of air pollution there. The city is also saying that homes and offices must keep their thermostats between 62 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit, another anti-pollution measure.

In San Vitaliano, located just outside Naples, the mayor banned bakeries and catering businesses, including pizzerias, from burning wood chips, pellets and charcoal to cook – a staple of Italian pizza making – unless business owners first install an appropriate air filter.

Rome and Milan, Italy’s two largest cities, both rank in the top 20 when it comes to Europe’s most polluted cities, according to the Soot Free for the Climate campaign. Both have previously restricted traffic to fight pollution, according to a BBC report, and are doing so again because there hasn’t been any recent rain to help sweep away the smog.

San Vitaliano, on the other hand, is a relatively small municipality of about 6,000 people, though officials there are no less concerned about air pollution’s impact on public health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 7 million people died as a result of air pollution in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available. That represented about 1 in 8 global deaths.

The WHO has said polluted air is the world’s largest environmental health risk as it can fuel other issues like heart and lung diseases. The organization is especially concerned about fine particulate matter, which can adversely affect one’s health even at relatively small levels.

In issuing his edict, San Vitaliano mayor Antonio Falcone noted the city “has recorded high values ​​of pollutants,” particularly the fine particulate matter, and no one has been able to determine the source of the problem, which has worsened as temperatures became colder.

Meanwhile, the BBC reported Thursday that 10 cities in northeast China have asked residents to stay inside because of dangerous air pollution.

Beijing Issues First ‘Red Alert’ for Smog

Officials in Beijing have issued the city’s first red alert for smog.

The Chinese capital city’s Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau issued the alert on Monday. In a translated posting on its website, the bureau said the warning was issued “to protect public health” and “reduce the degree of air pollution.”

The posting indicates that “heavy air pollution” is expected to continue through Thursday.

The Associated Press reported that the levels of fine particle matter (called PM 2.5) were approaching 300 micrograms per cubic meter on Monday. That’s 12 times the level that the World Health Organization, an arm of the United Nations, lists as a guideline for those particles.

The website posting indicates that schools are encouraged to close and that officials will be strengthening emergency measures. The city is also stepping up its public transportation and instituting alternating driving days for vehicles, among other pollution-curbing techniques.

The Xinhua News Agency reported it’s the only time a red alert was issued in Beijing since 2013, the year in which the city implemented emergency management protocols for air pollution.

The red alert was issued as leaders from China and nearly 200 other countries were entering the second week of a two-week climate changes summit in Paris. Much of the focus at the COP21 conference is how to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and curb rising temperatures.

China emits more greenhouse gasses than any other country in the world.

Chinese Hospital Opens Smog Clinic

Smog in southwest China has become so bad that a hospital has been forced to open a clinic focused solely on dealing with smog related illness.

No. 7 People’s Hospital in Chengdu City, provincial capital of Sichuan Province, has reported already dealing with 100 patients suffering from smog related respiratory conditions.

Hospital officials say that previously victims of smog related illness would have to be treated in multiple clinics such as ear-nose-throat and pneumology resulting in multiple doctor visits.  The new clinic will streamline treatment for patients and doctors.

Thick smog in many parts of China in the last few months have forced closures of schools, businesses and highways.  Some days were so bad that officials told residents not to allow their children outside in the air.

The Chinese government is reportedly examining whether liquid nitrogen shot into the air can be used as a way to lower smog in major cities.