Plagued By Smog, Krakow Struggles To Break Its Coal-Burning Habit

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Poland's second-largest city is also a major tourist destination. Krakow (seen here at night from the Krakus Mound) is suffering some of the worst air pollution in Europe. (Flickr)
Poland's second-largest city is also a major tourist destination. Krakow (seen here at night from the Krakus Mound) is suffering some of the worst air pollution in Europe. (Flickr)

Krakow is one of Europe's top tourist destinations and attracts millions of visitors each year to soak up its history, culture and architecture. But its appeal wanes during colder months when another prominent feature of the Polish city is on display: air pollution.

Environmental officials say Krakow's air is among the most polluted in Poland, which in turn, has the most polluted air in the European Union.

And what's the source of the smog hanging over the city during colder months? It's not Polish industry, but rather residents who burn coal to keep warm.

One such resident is Arleta Wolek. The 73-year-old retired production line worker keeps her coal-burning stove in her basement in a hillside neighborhood. The furnace is four years old, and she feeds it from a nearby pile of coal that's almost as tall as she is.

"I used to have gas but switched to coal because it's warmer," Wolek explains.

Arleta Wolek, a 73-year-old retired production line worker in Krakow, keeps her coal-burning stove in her basement. She feeds the 4-year-old stove from a nearby pile of coal that's almost as tall as she is.
Arleta Wolek, a 73-year-old retired production line worker in Krakow, keeps her coal-burning stove in her basement. She feeds the 4-year-old stove from a nearby pile of coal that's almost as tall as she is.

Like many Krakow residents, she doesn't believe coal smoke is the main contributor to the thick smog that hangs over the city like a dirty blanket. But she nevertheless has decided to switch her heating system back to gas after learning the local government will reimburse her for the retrofit.

"The switch is a good thing and will make my life easier because going into the basement to get coal and putting it into the stove takes time" and is strenuous, Wolek says.

It can take up to a year to get the government refund, but Wolek says she doesn't mind. What she is concerned about, however, is how senior citizens on fixed incomes are supposed to pay for the gas each month. Most gas here comes from Russia and costs consumers in Krakow twice as much as coal.

That's likely why more than 30,000 Krakow homeowners continue to use coal. Their intransigence leaves the air here hazy and sour-smelling, says Wolek's neighbor, Andrzej Plebancyzk, 71, who moved back from the United States in 2010.

"I have a problem breathing and it was really connected to the air, because I didn't have it in the States," he says. "Sometimes, when I used to be a kid, before we'd go to sleep we'd open the window to get fresh air. Forget doing that now, especially when there is no wind."

Dr. Eva Konduracka, a cardiologist, says air pollution causes 30 percent of the chronic obstructive lung disease cases she and other doctors here treat, many of them in young people. High cancer rates are also linked to the toxins people are breathing.
Dr. Eva Konduracka, a cardiologist, says air pollution causes 30 percent of the chronic obstructive lung disease cases she and other doctors here treat, many of them in young people. High cancer rates are also linked to the toxins people are breathing.

The health effects are even worse than the smell, says Dr. Eva Konduracka, who compares it to "smoking 2,000 cigarettes per year."

The cardiologist says smog is causing 30 percent of the chronic obstructive lung disease cases she and other doctors here treat, many of them in young people. High cancer rates are also linked to the toxins people are breathing.

In Krakow, she says, doctors diagnose a new case of malignant tumor every three hours.

One was Anna Krokosz. She died a few days after being diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago, says her daughter, Aleksandra Bedek. The quality control engineer says her 77-year-old mother never smoked a day in her life, but coughed all the time.

Bedek, who is 58, says she coughs a lot, too. She avoids spending any more time outdoors than necessary because of the smog. But the smell of her neighbors' coal smoke seeps into her apartment.

Anna Dworakowska, 35, helped found a grass-roots movement called the Krakow Smog Alert campaign, which educates residents about the dangers of air pollution.
Anna Dworakowska, 35, helped found a grass-roots movement called the Krakow Smog Alert campaign, which educates residents about the dangers of air pollution.

"Whenever the wind stops, I feel like I'm suffocating, especially when I'm lying in bed at night," Bedek says.

Anna Dworakowska, 35, helped found a grass-roots movement called the Krakow Smog Alert campaign, which educates residents about the dangers of air pollution.

"Of course the air in Krakow was much worse 20 years ago because, first of all, there were [many] more people heating their houses with coal," Dworakowska says. "The second thing is we had much more industry, which was closed down after the anti-communist revolution. But on the other hand, we know much more about the impact of air pollution on our health than 20 years ago."

One of those revelations is the high concentration of benzo(a)pyrene in Krakow's air. The compound is found in coal tar and is highly carcinogenic. Dworakowska says Poles breathe in five times the EU-prescribed norms of benzo(a)pyrene.

Her group spurred the Krakow government into approving a ban on residential wood and coal-burning in the city starting in 2018. But a regional court last August overturned the measure, declaring it unconstitutional and unenforceable. That ruling has been appealed, and the proposed ban remains in legal limbo.

Krzysztof Bolesta, a political adviser to the Polish environmental minister, says he isn't surprised. In fact, it's such a big problem that his ministry made air quality its highest priority for 2015.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

The Polish city of Krakow is known for its rich history and culture - and also its air pollution. Health officials say Krakow has some of the most polluted air in all of Poland. That country has the most polluted air of any country in the entire European Union, so that's quite a distinction. A smog hangs over Krakow during the colder months of the year. That's because its residents are burning coal in their homes to stay warm. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson traveled to Krakow and found that few who live there are willing to stop.

ARLETA WOLEK: (Speaking Polish).

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Arleta Wolek shows off her coal-burning stove in her basement in this hillside Krakow neighborhood. The furnace is four years old, and she feeds it from a nearby pile of coal that's almost as tall as she is.

WOLEK: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: "I used to have gas, but switched to coal because it's warmer," the 73-year-old says. Like many people here, she doesn't believe coal use at home is the main reason for the smog that hangs over the city like a dirty blanket, but she is nevertheless switching back to gas. That's because the local government last year began paying for residents to convert their heating systems to get them to abandon coal.

WOLEK: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: The retiree says she's looking forward to not having to walk down to the basement twice a day to fill her furnace.

WOLEK: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: It can take up to a year to get the refund. But Wolek is more worried about how she will pay for gas on her fixed income. Most of that gas comes from Russia and costs twice as much as coal does here. Affordability is a major reason why only a minority has signed up for the city's furnace conversion program. Most Krakow residents continue to burn coal. Their intransigence leaves the air here hazy and sour-smelling.

DR. EVA KONDURACKA: Living in Krakow, it means smoking 2,000 cigarettes per year.

NELSON: That's Dr. Eva Konduracka, who describes the impact the air here has on her and other Krakow residents' lungs. The cardiologist says smog is causing 30 percent of the chronic obstructive lung disease cases doctors treat here. High cancer rates are also linked to the toxins people are breathing.

KONDURACKA: In Krakow, every three hour new case of malignant tumor is diagnosed in one person.

NELSON: One of those people was Anna Krokosz. She died only days after being diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago, says her daughter, Aleksandra Bedek.

ALEKSANDRA BEDEK: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: She says her 77-year-old mother never smoked a day of her life, but coughed all the time. Bedek, who is 58, says she coughs a lot, too. She avoids spending any more time outdoors than necessary because of the smog.

BEDEK: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: Even so, the smell of her neighbors coal smoke seeps into her apartment. She says "whenever the wind stops, I feel like I'm suffocating, especially when I'm lying in bed at night."

BEDEK: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: Bendek says she considers breathing the air here to be a death sentence. So does Anna Dworakowska. The 35-year-old comes from a forested area in the Northeast dubbed The Green Lungs of Poland because of its clean air. Two years ago, she co-founded a grass-roots movement here called the Krakow Smog Alert Campaign. She says the pollution in the city was worse 20 years ago.

ANNA DWORAKOWSKA: We had much more industry, which was closed down after the anti-Communist revolution. But on the other hand, we know much more about the impact of our pollution on our health than 20 years ago.

NELSON: She says a big problem is the concentration of benzo(a)pyrene, which is found in coal tar and is highly carcinogenic. Because of coal emissions, Poles breathe in five times the EU norms, Dworakowska says.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRAKOW SMOG ALERT CAMPAIGN RADIO AD)

NELSON: This radio ad by the Krakow Smog Alert Campaign is meant to warn residents about the dangers of the air they breathe here. The group's advocacy was key in getting local officials to adopt a ban on residential wood and coal burning in the city starting in 2018. But a regional court overturned the measure last summer, declaring it unconstitutional. That ruling was quickly appealed, and so far the proposed ban remains in legal limbo. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.