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Suburban sprawl pollutes Hungary

The rapid rise in commuter traffic to and from Budapest is creating Los Angeles-style smog.

By Colin WoodardCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2008

Smog: Pollution in Budapest, Hungary exceeded recommended levels 115 days last year. Most of it comes from car exhaust.

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Budapest, Hungary

Climb into the Buda Hills and look back at the flatlands of Pest and the pollution is obvious: a yellow-gray cloud that blankets the Hungarian capital much of the time.

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Indeed, 19 years after the collapse of communism, Budapest's air quality has become a problem again. Pollution exceeded recommended levels 115 days last year, 80 days more than permitted under European Union (EU) guidelines. In late December and early January, the capital experienced one of its most prolonged smog events in a decade.

When communism imploded in 1989, Budapest's air was atrocious. With their two-cycle engines, fleets of Trabant automobiles spewed black clouds of lead-laden exhaust, while city busses and industrial facilities pumped eye-stinging emissions into the air. During the 1990s the air cleared as factories installed pollution controls, leaded gasoline was banned, and newer, cleaner Western cars replaced dirty Soviet ones.

But in recent years, those gains have been reversed as many Hungarians now drive to work from increasingly far-flung suburban areas. Lead and sulfur dioxide have been replaced by dangerous concentrations of tiny exhaust particles.

"We've exchanged [Victorian-era] London-type smog for Los Angles-type smog," laments Janos Zlinszky of the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe. "The nature of our environmental problems is shifting."

Across east-central Europe, a region once blighted by Communist-era pollution, economic development is bringing on a new set of environmental problems and, in some cases, bringing back old ones.

The not-so-blue Danube?

The Danube River, an 1,800-mile waterway that drains half of the European continent, has gotten much cleaner since 1990, when its heavy load of sewage and agricultural runoff helped trigger the ecological collapse of much of the Black Sea. The improvement was due mostly to the end of Communist-era agriculture in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, though new sewage treatment plants helped as well.

As a result, experts say, the Black Sea ecosystem is beginning to show signs of recovery.

"The Black Sea does appear to be experiencing some positive ecological effects from the reduced pollution trends," says Philip Weller, executive secretary of the Vienna-based International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River.

But Mr. Weller is concerned that those gains will soon be lost as the region's economy grows and Romania and Bulgaria move toward more intensive agriculture in the Danube's lower watershed. "If more fertilizers and pesticides are utilized, there will be an increase in pollution in the rivers," he notes. "We're already see the positive trends leveling off."

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