Anna Borisova lives in the suburbs of Bulgarian capital Sofia, where most families heat their households with coal and wood in the winter.
She has two very young children– a baby in her arms, and a little boy.
“My 4-year old son is suffering from bronchial asthma,” she says.
On windless winter days, the tiny particles emitted by the burning of these fuels are trapped in and above the city of over 1.2 million people.
“During those days the air becomes so full of smoke, we can hardly go outside our house. Due to the poor air quality my son’s asthma gets worse and his attacks increase,” she says.
Anna’s experience of Sofia points to a global trend: awareness of link between air pollution and health is rising steadily in parallel with the volume and specificity of the science exploring air pollution impacts.
Also rising are the determination and willingness of those on the frontlines of health impacts to demand change.
Earlier this month, a coalition of nine doctor and health organisations joined the global Unmask My City initiative, calling for greater urgency in achieving clean air in Anna’s city, Sofia. The Bulgarian capital is one of the most polluted cities in the European Union (EU).
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that Bulgaria has the third highest mortality rate (per 100.000 population) from air pollution in the world, after North Korea and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Bulgaria loses the equivalent of 29.5 per cent of the country’s GDP through reduced productivity and costs of treating the diseases caused by air pollution.
“Polluted air can affect lung development in children, cause or worsen asthma, allergic disorders and the lung disease COPD that means permanent narrowing of the airways, not to forget lung cancer. It is dangerous for every single person to ignore the pollution problem – we must act now for better air quality now and we will see immediate short term benefits for our health as well as save our children and grandchildren a lot of future trouble,” said Chairman of the Executive Board of the Association Air for Health and lung expert, Dr. Alexander Simidchiev.
Anna already knows this.
“Most of our family friends with children have to always keep a nebulizer at home – it is so obvious that respiratory tract diseases are the most common diseases among small children and babies,” she says.
In her opinion, the problem could easily be solved: “The municipalities in some regions like ours could financially stimulate households to use more effective and more eco-friendly heating systems. In my household for example, we use pellets which make no smoke and have less negative effects on the air quality.”
Her voice is now joined by the medical profession in her country.
According to their press release, through the Unmask My City initiative, doctors and health groups are calling for concrete and tangible solutions for the citizens of Sofia and Bulgaria, including the following:
• Comply with legally binding EU air quality standards.
• Establish air quality standards (limit values) for PM10 and PM2.5 in accordance with recommendations of the World Health Organization.
• Health professionals should become engaged on air quality, including on policy changes, and should inform the public on health risks due to air pollution and alert their patients when air pollution exceeds EU or WHO guidelines.
• Move away from coal energy to renewable energy sources and promote energy savings. Prioritize energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.
• Promote renewable energy systems for household heating and transitioning away from fossil fuel use.
• Put strict emissions standards for vehicles in urban zones; and implement the “polluter pays” principle with sanctions for those not sticking to the rules.
• Make active travel, including walking and cycling and sustainable public transport, the backbone of city transport policies.
But doctors aren’t the only ones speaking up.
This May, a year after after Bulgaria (along with several other European states) received a rap on the knuckles by the European Union for its poor air quality record, Sofia citizens filed a class action suit against the municipality, despite the EU observing that the country’s air quality had in fact improved after the reprimand.
According to media reports, the courts closed the case, but a group of public organizations recently filed an appeal.
Citizen action has also given rise to monitoring website AirSofia.Info in response to a perceived lack of consistent and reliable data on air pollution in the city.
It maintains an interactive map of Sofia divided into hexagonal zones in which volunteers with air quality monitors provide measurements daily.
“Today, after thousands of hours of volunteer work, we do over 100,000 daily measurements on the territory of the capital,” to the movement’s Facebook page states.
“We deliver to society the most comprehensive picture of the state of pollution in real time,” it continues.
The site is more than a public information initiative, however– those who run it see it as a way to measure the effectiveness of any implemented measures and hold policymakers accountable for results.
“We citizens now have a way to see if what they have done is enough,” it states.
Read more here.