Since the beginning of the financial crisis in Greece, levels of dangerous air pollution in one of the country’s hardest hit areas have risen 30 percent as people burn cheaper fuel for warmth.
These fine particles—measuring less than 2.5 microns in diameter (approximately 1/30th the diameter of a human hair)—are especially dangerous because they can lodge deep into the tissue of lungs, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“People need to stay warm, but face decreasing employment and rising fuel costs,” says Constantinos Sioutas, professor in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California. “The problem is economic hardship has compelled residents to burn low quality fuel, such as wood and waste materials, that pollutes the air.”
Unemployment in Greece climbed above 27 percent in 2013. Meanwhile, heating oil prices have nearly tripled during the country’s financial crisis of the last few years—driven in part by a fuel tax hike. To compensate, residents have turned to wood as a major fuel source.
For the study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, researchers collected air samples that supported anecdotal evidence of Greek residents burning of wood and trash for heating.
Taken over two-month stretches during the winter of 2012 and again in the winter of 2013, the samples reveal a dramatic increase in airborne fine particles since the beginning of the economic crisis.
The concentration of these particles, which has been linked to increased risk for heart disease and respiratory problems, rose from 26 to 36 micrograms per square meter over the study period.
The EPA standard in the United States is an average of 20 micrograms per square meter over a 24-hour period. Worse yet, the concentrations of carcinogenic organic compounds such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) increased five-fold during the study period.
Not worth the cost
The concentration of the particulates was highest in the evening, presumably when more people were burning fuel. An analysis of the air samples also showed a two-to-five-fold increase in the airborne concentrations of organic compounds such as levoglucosan, mannosan, and galactosan, which indicate the burning of biomass.
The presence of these compounds has been strongly correlated in past research to oxidative stress in human cells, which is linked to inflammation, aging, and the development of age-related diseases.
“Wood’s cheap, but it’s having a major negative impact on air quality,” Sioutas says.
The authors recommend active involvement of public authorities and local agencies to implement effective air pollution control strategies. They suggest increasing natural gas distribution in residential areas as a practical long-term solution. Catalytic domestic wood burners and increasing the energy efficiency of existing buildings might be additional possible solutions.
Researchers from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the University of Wisconsin-Madison contributed to the study, which was funded by the USC Provost, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and the City of Thessaloniki Mayor’s office.