“Oh, pollution, well, it all blows away thankfully, since it’s nearly always windy in Malta.” This was how one friend answered my query about air pollution when I arrived in Malta years back. We’d been walking up Bisazza Street in Sliema, shrouded in diesel smoke belching from the passing buses. Today, it’s pretty much the same, although some buses are a bit newer.
Back then too, in the early ’90s, the location of the then new power station was still a hot topic. While its site was chosen, apparently, to mitigate the power station’s environmental impact, the landmark chimney just happened to rear up a few metres from former Labour prime minster Dom Mintoff’s villa.
Since Malta’s EU membership, environmental issues are taking centre stage more frequently and are less likely to be dismissed in a partisan or jokey fashion. A topic never far from the media is the high incidence of asthma in Malta and its linkage to air pollution and particle inhalation.
Several NGOs – Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar, Friends of the Earth, Birdlife Malta, Din l-Art Ħelwa, Greenhouse, NatureTrust Malta, and the Ramblers’ Association of Malta – have joined forces in recent weeks to petition the Malta Transport Authority (ADT) to do more (or at least use their current powers more effectively) to curb illegally high vehicle emission levels. The belching buses are a visible reminder that however many years pass, plus ça change…!
When it comes to the effects of particle emissions on the health of the nation, Malta has more sinister visible signs. Benchmarking Malta’s asthma rates internationally, we find that the islands have among the highest incidence of asthma in the Mediterranean, and place around third in European league tables. Our heavy reliance on fossil fuels for transport, energy and industry is taking its toll. For example, St Anne’s Street (the main thoroughfare in Floriana) is likely the most toxic street in Malta, according to statistics compiled by the planning authority. The street harbours three nasties – particulate matter; benzene; and nitrogen dioxide – in levels which far exceed those the EU deems acceptable.
Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar, the new kid on the block in Malta’s environmental lobby, has the energy of youth to not let the authorites off the hook. It has the bit between its teeth now on the air pollution/particle issue and is hounding the government over its decision to seek exemption from EU rules on air quality and PM10 particulate traffic pollution until mid-2011. Whether you’re an active environmentalist or not, it’s clear that Malta, despite its wind-swept location, has serious air quality problems. And, unlike our winter storms giving way to summer again, these toxic clouds won’t be going away easily.
Photo: Gege Gatt
George Debono says
Sims raises a number of points which are interesting but at the same time liable to confuse the issue.
Basically there are two major problems, one global, the other local.
* One is Climate Change – this is a very serious global issue.
* The other issue is the severe degree of pollution from traffic emissions in our streets. While FAA are very cognizant of climate change, this is overshadowed by our serious local problem of street level pollution is far more serious than the (mostly) trans-national background pollution which Sims refers to. MAlta’s pollution problem is local and it is urgent.
The important point is this: in the case of Malta, the problem is nearer home! In our very streets! And street pollution is a problem which is here and now (as opposed to future climate change).
Furthermore, whereas people used to speak loosely about “pollutants” in a general sort of way, the damaging effect of each individual pollutant is now recognized. Various scientific bodies such as those of WHO, the American cancer society and COMEAP (committee on the medical effects of pollution) in the UK all agree that PARTICULATES as emitted by vehicles (any combustion engine, in fact) , but especially diesel engines, are highly toxic and far and away the worst and most dangerous source of harm to health. Particulate emissions are responsible for many serious health effects – these include increased cancer rates, shortened life span, aggravation of asthma and retarded lung development. The frequency of the health impacts were found to be highest in people living on, or near, roads with heavy traffic – which is most often the case in Malta.
Another very dangerous cancer-causing pollutant in our streets is benzene.
This is not to say that Ozone , nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides are harmless. They are – but their effects are less serious than particulates.
For this reason the black smoke emitted by buses (an abundant source of particulates) must be taken very, very seriously. That these buses and other diesel vehicles continue to emit smoke right under police officers’ and traffic wardens’ noses is a national scandal…
For further reading the report Towards a Low Carbon Society: The Nation’s Health, Energy Security and Fossil Fuels is suggested. This can be downloaded can be downloaded from:
Elizabeth Ayling says
Sims, thanks for the extra info and reporting. You are indeed right that a few paragraphs can only but scratch the surface, glibly, of a complex scientific subject. And that shipping in the region, which passes close to Malta, if not stopping here, has its contribution too. In fact, shipping I noted on the BBC news a month back is to come under intense scrutiny for its polluting habits. One only has to see the cruise liners exiting Grand Harbour to see and smell its effects. Sure, belching buses are but a very visible reminder of the whole debate, and certainly not the sole culprit of the various pollution-aggravated ailments. Your points about what’s happening over and in the Med are important to understanding why Malta may have high incidences of asthma for instance. We need though to sort out our back yard so to speak, and use the legal teeth that exist here, while pan-European and international bodies and committee try to work on global pollution issues. It’s not pleasant to be coated in exhaust while ‘enjoying’ Sliema’s newly-paved (embellished) shopping zones. With tourism a huge contributor, directly and indirectly, to the economy, cleaning up when and where we can is a start and helps both locals and visitors. The SMS reporting service was doomed to failure from the start and more a publicity stunt to placate, I feel. There is more serious work to do…as people like Astrid Vella of FAA is, behind the scenes.
The study of air pollution is an extremely complex field, with many variables that are not as ‘clear’ as the belching dark smoke that comes from Maltese buses. Some 25% of the world’s shipping use the Suez Canal-Gibraltar shipping lanes. Reports from Norway indicated that Malta could be receiving around 16% of its Sulphur Dioxide and 38% of its Nitric Oxide emissions from that shipping. One cannot SMS any inspection agency to report those belching behemoths.
Ozone level recording has a long history, going all the way back to 1883 when Jesuits in Victoria, Gozo started recording ozone three times per day. The study of ozone was intensified between 1997-2001 when scientists from Germany and Malta studied pollution, particularly ozone levels, from the Gordon lighthouse in Gozo.
I attended a fascinating lecture years ago in Gozo where these scientists tried to explain their study, a very complex topic indeed. Smart people, most likely incredibly underfunded, who were performing work of the most important kind. I do recall them stating that the concentration of surface ozone in the Mediterranean is one of the highest in the world. Pollutants from across Europe, and the world for that matter, affect the quality of life, the concentration of asthma, crop production, and the future of those yet to be born here in Malta.
Nero fiddled while Rome burned? The violin wouldn’t appear for hundreds of years, there was more to that story than that simple phrase. What are the world’s politicians doing with their time at the helm? The instruments that can record the ‘burning’ of our air do exist now. What actions are they taking?