Environmental groups have been warning about Spain's failure to meet EU and World Health Organization air pollution limits for two decades, and yet, as a report released last week by Ecologists in Action shows, successive governments have done nothing to combat a problem that causes tens of thousands of deaths each year.
According to Ecologists in Action, and based on figures collected in 2011, 94 percent of Spaniards are breathing air that exceeds safe pollution levels recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). On top of that, 22 percent of the population - 10.4 million people - are breathing air that exceeds European legal pollution limits, the report said.
The European Environment Agency's (EEA) most recent report, from 2010, also criticizes the Spanish authorities for exceeding emission limits for nitrogen dioxide, ammonia, mercury, and other volatile organic compounds. Several regions in Spain have been forced to impose moratoria on emissions, or face fines for surpassing limits established by Brussels in 2010.
Madrid has the worst record for air pollution levels, and one of the blackest spots is the area around its central Retiro Park. Other cities with areas that consistently show dangerously high levels of air pollution are Barcelona, Granada, Palma de Mallorca and Bilbao, according to the Environment Ministry.
Ecologists in Action say that although there has been a slight reduction in air pollution levels since 2008, the NGO attributes this more to the depression that has hit the Spanish economy, which has prompted a reduction in car use, rather than any measures taken by the government or its agencies.
Francisco Feo Brito of the Spanish Society for Allergology and Clinical Immunology explains that free radicals produced during combustion may last much longer than previously thought, binding to other polluting particles and causing asthma and possibly a variety of lung diseases, including cancer, according to several studies.
"Inflammation of the lungs can produce permanent lacerations that limit our ability to breathe," he says. Free radicals are electrically charged atoms or molecules that are known to cause cell damage and have been linked to a variety of health conditions, including heart disease and cancer. A free radical is a molecule that is missing an electron and thus structurally unstable. To gain stability, it interacts with other nearby molecules (such as DNA or airway cell membranes) and plunders them to get what it needs.
The body has a defense mechanism against free radicals in the form of antioxidants, substances that are known to have a number of health benefits. Antioxidants can safely interact with free radicals to stop their actions before vital cells are damaged. But the body doesn't make antioxidants; they must be brought in through vitamins found in foods.
While scientists have long known that combustion produces free radicals, until now they had believed that the particles were unstable and persisted for no more than a second. Research has shown that when released along with air pollutants from exhaust pipes, chimneys or smokestacks, free radicals bind to those pollutants and continue to exist over the long term.
Exposure to particles suspended in the atmosphere can also cause brain damage and increase the risk of heart attacks, according to research carried out by the United States Medical Association. Urban pollution is also linked to respiratory disease in children under five, says the World Health Organization, and can reduce life expectancy.
POLLUTION BLACK SPOTS #1 River Nervión, Vizcaya
"The stench is there all the time"
Heavy industry emissions give area worst air quality in the Basque Country
LEYRE PEJENAUTE, Bilbao
Muskiz is a small town around 50 kilometers from Bilbao that is home to an oil refinery owned by Petronor. In March, following an accident at the plant that sent fumes pouring into the atmosphere, producing a powerful stench that hung over the town for days, a detection unit was installed in the San Juan neighborhood, the area of town closest to the refinery. Within days, the unit was registering peaks in the amount of benzene in the air. A pipe in the plant's refrigeration unit had cracked and was emitting naphthalene. Normally the gas would have evaporated, but the accident happened when fog and mist were covering the town, and the compounds remained in the air at a low level.
Muskiz is just one of several small industrial towns along the lower reaches of the River Nervión, an area that Ecologists in Action's latest report says has the worst air quality in the Basque Country.
"There is no doubt that throughout this area the decline of heavy industry and the recent closure of the Santurce coal-fired power plant has improved air quality," says Sara Ibáñez, a local GP and a member of the Meatzaldea Bizirik environmental group. "But in recent years, the area alongside the refinery has registered a marked increase in emissions, along with those from a nearby incineration plant." She says the opening of a coke plant in 2009 has also further deteriorated air quality. "Airborne pollution in this area is having an impact on health," Ibáñez explains. "People are suffering from nausea, stomach problems, headaches and eye irritation. The stench is there all the time. People react to the problem in different ways, and it is difficult to provide a clear picture of the impact of the air that they breathe. The other problem is that there are no air monitors here. None of the monitoring units have hydrocarbon detectors."
The Turruntero resident's association is in the San Julián neighborhood, close to the refinery. Amelia is a member and says she knows of several young people dying from lung cancer, and that rates in the area are higher than the regional average. She adds that one of the conditions to which Petronor agreed when it opened the plant in 2009 was to carry out regular epidemiological studies. "But the regional government changed, and when the Basque Nationalist Party got it, the plan was put on hold."
Javier García, the president of the San Julián residents' association, says local people are not trying to get the refinery closed: "We're simply trying to protect our health." The most recent study of the impact of industry on health, carried out between 1996 and 2003, showed that mortality among men was 14 percent higher than the regional average, and 12 percent higher among women.
Petronor's communication department rejects accusations that it is breaching environmental law: "We are constantly checking emissions levels, all our permits are in order, and we do not exceed legal emissions levels. All complaints should be addressed to the local government."
Rocío Marcos is a biologist who works with Ecologists in Action, and has carried out controls at the 54 monitoring stations installed throughout the Basque Country. "There are many worrying cases. In Munoa, for example, local people cannot put their washing out to dry."
In Zorroza, another town along the Nervión, local resident Teo says an incineration plant at Zabalgarbi is pumping out excessive amounts of heavy metals, dioxins and other cancer-causing substances. "The problem is that the authorities do not want to take on private companies, which breach the law with impunity."
POLLUTION BLACK SPOTS #2 Montcada i Reixac, Barcelona
“We always have our Ventolin on us”
IVANNA VALLESPÍN, Barcelona
Catalan town is sandwiched between highways, train lines and a cement factory
Montcada i Reixac is one of Barcelona’s dormitory towns and its 34,000 residents are stuck in the middle of two train lines, three arterial roads and several main roads along which some 300,000 vehicles pass each day. It is also home to 10 industrial estates and a large cement factory.
According to the report published by Ecologists in Action, Montcada has the highest levels of PM 10 particles, which are produced mainly by fossil fuels, in Catalonia. EU legislation permits PM 10 particles in the atmosphere to surpass 40 micrograms per cubic meter for 35 days a year, but in 2011, Montcada did so on 64 occasions; Barcelona exceeded the limit for 43 days. Montcada also exceeded the EU’s nitrous dioxide limits.
Air pollution in Montcada is a chronic problem that successive administrations have failed to tackle. In 1987, it was the first city in Spain to be declared a zone with contaminated air.
Nuria Vidal knows the town’s problems well: she used to work for the local council’s environment department. Now a member of Ecologists in Action, she helped prepare the NGO’s report on air pollution in Spain. “The presence of so many factories, and particularly the cement plant, is a major contributing factor to the town’s high levels of airborne pollution,” she says.
José Luís Conejero, the head of Montcada’s residents’ association, also blames the cement factory, saying it pumps out dust that settles over the town’s cars and on apartment block balconies. A decade-long construction boom has made matters worse, he says. Nuria Vidal adds that the cement factory’s location is a further aggravating factor: “It is surrounded by hills that prevent the wind from blowing the dust away.”
Julio Mauri, a technician who works for Montcada town council, is more concerned about the impact of so much motor vehicle traffic on the town’s air and the health of its residents. “The main problem comes from diesel vehicles, which have been heavily promoted over the last decade, precisely when what we needed to be doing was encouraging the development and use of electric cars, along with public transport,” he says.
The train routes that pass through the town are also a contributing factor to Montcada’s high levels of air pollution, says Laura Grau, a local resident. “There are a lot of train crossings in the area, which means that trains are often stationary, and pumping out diesel,” she says.
Montcada’s residents are exposed to high levels of particles suspended in the air, which they breathe in and can cause respiratory problems. They also increase the risk of cancer and heart disease. That said, the local health center says it has no evidence to suggest that residents have more respiratory problems than people living in other areas of Catalonia.
Jordi Buj, a lung specialist who has worked in the Les Indianes health center for the last eight years, says he has not noticed greater levels of illness that might be related to air pollution in Montcada. Local residents counter this by saying that no epidemiological studies have been carried out in the towns around Barcelona.
“We are all too aware of the poor air quality in this town,” says Agustina San José, aged 71. She is sitting on a bench under a tree on Montcada’s main street, close to a measuring station that has registered unprecedented levels of air pollution in recent years. Local people are “used” to the town’s dirty air, and simply “get on with it,” she says. Most of her friends have some kind of chest complaint and six of her nephews have allergies or asthma. “Round here, we always have a Ventolin inhaler on us,” she says.
POLLUTION BLACK SPOTS #3 The Retiro, Madrid
Capital park has dirtiest air in the city
Intense traffic around the green zone creates worrying levels of toxic gases
MARYEM CASTILLO, Madrid
It sounds unbelievable, but the area of Madrid with the worst air pollution is the Retiro Park, where monitors show that levels of nitrogen dioxide, which can cause respiratory problems and is produced mainly by traffic fumes, exceeded EU levels in 2011.
Figures for 2012 show there has been no reduction in these levels.
José Ignacio Fernández has run a newspaper kiosk close to the park, which is situated in the city's smart Salamanca neighborhood, for the last 60 years. For much of the last three decades he has been using eye drops to help alleviate the effects of the dust and smoke belched out by the constant flow of traffic.
"The doctors say there is nothing wrong with me, that it is just smoke and dust," he says.
His wife, Isabel Martín, says that because of the lack of rain, "the dust was unbearable" this summer.
José Ignacio says the problem is made worse in winter by the smoke produced by the coal-fired boilers that provide central heating for the area's apartment buildings.
"The only time that you can breathe properly is when it rains," he says.
The Spanish Society for Allergology and Clinical Immunology warns that the high levels of airborne pollution in Madrid exacerbate allergies and asthma in the capital.
Lissi García, who works near the Retiro, says she has become more susceptible to colds and flu in recent years, and that it takes her longer to get over them. "This year I have noticed it particularly, and you could see the dirt in the mucous."
But Paco, who runs a nearby fruit stall, says he has not noticed any increase in air pollution. "And what's more, we have the park close by, which absorbs a lot of the pollution in the air." He blames the high levels of nitrogen dioxide on the traffic.
According to Ecologists in Action, the annual average amounts of nitrogen dioxide in Madrid's air broke EU limits for the second year running in 2011, at 40 micrograms per cubic meter. Other airborne particles, notably diesel, didn't exceed EU levels, but were higher than those recommended by the World Health Organization. Madrid City Hall has asked Brussels for a five-year exemption from meeting EU levels. If it is not granted the exemption, it will be fined.
A spokesman for the city's environmental department blames the high levels of air pollution on "the prolonged meteorological stability between February and October 2011." In other words, the fact that it didn't rain very much during that time.
It says the high levels of air pollution in the capital are also partly caused by dust blown over from the Sahara.