How Greece's economic crisis filled the Athens sky with smog

On bad days this winter, urban air-pollution levels have topped those deemed safe – and it's at least partially due to government taxes.

Yorgos Karahalis/Reuters/File
Apostolos Mastouropoulos carries firewood to his fireplace inside his house outside of Athens last February. With Greeks already struggling under the economic crisis, many have stopped using heating oil in favor of burning firewood – using anything from branches to old furniture – which has helped create a blanket of smog over the Greek capital.

A brown smog has descended over Greece's cities. The smell of burned wood is prevalent, and those that suffer from asthma or have heart disease have been advised to stay inside.

And in a convoluted way, it's the Greek economic crisis – or at least, one of the government's reactions to it – that is to blame.

Tax increases on heating oil have driven the majority of Greeks, even those belonging to the upper-middle class, to turn to burning wood in order to heat their homes. But the practice, which includes burning painted scrap in unsafe braziers, is producing dangerous smog – and has even claimed a few dozen lives. And although exact tallies are unavailable, many have also died in fires caused by braziers and heaters.

Plagued by five years of economic crisis and severe debt, the government has raised taxes across the board multiple times in order to generate revenue, despite the fact that Greeks have lost more than 40 percent of their income in just four years.

Among those increases was a 450 percent raise in taxes on heating oil in a single blow in 2010. The government claims it was necessary to bring the heating oil's price in line with that of diesel fuel, in order to stop the illegal market of heating oil.

Before the tax increase, a typical family would use 2.5 tons of heating oil, which would cost $2,500. Today, for the same amount they'd pay $4,440. And with most apartment buildings sharing a single oil furnace, if any one apartment can't afford their share of oil, the whole building goes without – meaning collectively only one out of five apartment buildings can afford the new oil prices, according to the Fuel Distributors Association.

As a result, the tax revenue from the sale of heating oil has fallen by $718 million, as consumption fell 70 percent in the past two years.

Energy poverty

Now, the majority of the Greeks have given up heating oil in favor of fireplaces, electric heaters, oil stoves, or worse: makeshift braziers that can become poisonous indoors and are not as effective in warming up an apartment.

They call it energy poverty – and it is having severe long-term consequences, experts warn. As more people burn whatever wood they can scrape up, including painted wood from furniture, it is creating dangerous levels of toxic fumes over Greece's major cities, said two professors from the University of Thessaloniki, in an open letter they published online a few weeks ago.

"The smog is a byproduct of biomass combustion and chemically treated wood that adds an additional [toxic layer] to the cities' atmosphere and has a direct and lasting impact on health," they wrote. "The dramatic proliferation of gaseous pollutants is a major health risk and requires immediate and drastic measures to tackle it."

Air pollution levels have topped those set by the World Health Organization deemed safe – 50 milligrams per cubic meter of dangerous particles in the air. The professors warn of the long-term consequences the smog will have on people's lives.

"In the process of carcinogenesis, there are no safe levels of exposure. Measures that will enable heating by the existing domestic infrastructure (oil, gas, electricity), [are necessary] to stop the current situation," they write.

More immediately, the fumes from make-shift heaters have poisoned and even killed locals trying to stay warm. Such cases are now almost a weekly occurrence and dozens have died from these fumes in the past year. There are no official numbers of the people that have died from inhaling fumes or from those dying in fires that started from unattended braziers, but according to reports by the Greek media, more than 50 people die every year.

No solutions?

So far, the government's proffered solutions to the smog and heating problem have done little – and arguably avoid even addressing the problem. For instance, the Ministry of Environment increased the pollution limit officially considered safe to 100mg per cubic meter, double the WHO standard.

"Unfortunately, I can't explain the ministry's decision" of raising the limit of dangerous particles in the air, says Michalis Prodromou, a climate change campaigner for the World Wildlife Fund. "It seems to be something only we've done."

The ministry also introduced incentives to get Greeks to use electric heaters instead of burning wood, but they have not helped: the 0.60 euro ($0.81) discount per day for small households on days the pollution tops the limit has proven too little to affect change.

The Ministry of Environment also announced that the days there's too much smog, it will forbid the use of fireplaces and braziers. Inspectors will walk in neighborhoods and when they detect smoke coming out of chimneys, they will find the landlord to give them a $3,400 fine. The government also ordered that on high-pollution days, heating in public buildings will be turned off, while factories and diesel cars are not allowed to operate.

"The state must inform people about the risks posed from having a makeshift brazier inside their house," says Lefteris Klimis, one of the three students that fell into a coma after breathing in such fumes last year in Larissa, in central Greece. Mr. Klimis emerged from the coma a few months later.

Klimis, whose two friends died in that accident, is still in rehab. "In our case it was a clear case of ignorance, with tragic results," he adds.

Nikos Roumpis contributed to this report.

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