Paris briefly tops world charts for air pollution

Patrick Kovarik, AFP I This file picture dated March 11, 2014 shows the Eiffel tower and Paris' roofs through a haze of pollution. Paris is experiencing a periodic pollution spike on March 18, 2015.

Air pollution in Paris was worse than in any city in the world for a brief moment this week – putting it above regular offenders such as Delhi and Peking – according to pollution-monitoring mobile app Plume Labs.


According to Plume Labs (which monitors 60 cities worldwide), an air quality index number above 150 is considered “critical”, while anything above 100 is considered “harmful”. Paris hit 125 on the app’s index on Wednesday.

The smog, which continues to envelop the city as well as much of north-western France, has dissipated enough to knock Paris off the top polluter’s spot since its peak on Wednesday afternoon.

But the pollution is still in the air. In the short term, nothing short of a few days of rain (which would wash many of the fine particles out of the air though no rain is forecast) or a drastic reduction in the number of cars on the roads will make the problem disappear.

City Hall, which told FRANCE 24 on Friday that it recognized the gravity of the situation, has put some short-term measures into place. On Saturday March 21, public transport will be free in the greater Paris region in an effort to reduce pollution from cars, while parking in the city will be free.

In the long term, the city is looking to progressively ban the most polluting cars and lorries from the streets while working to extend and upgrade the public transport system in a bid to wean the public off private vehicles.

Despite the recent high numbers, French experts say any claim that Paris is one of the most polluted cities in the world is far-fetched.

“We have pollution issues, but lots of other cities do too,” said Karine Leger, assistant director of Airparif in Paris, which monitors air quality for the Environment Ministry and supplies its data to Plume Labs.

“Air quality in the French capital is generally better than a decade ago,” she said, adding that Wednesday’s spike was not indicative of Parisian pollution levels in general. “It’s the wrong idea to compare a city at a certain moment when you have meteorological conditions that could make the pollution worse at that point.”

‘Uninspired’ politicians

The weather is indeed partly to blame. March has been a dry month and as the spring weather warms up, more dangerous fine particles have filled the air.

But blaming the weather is no excuse, according to the French Association of Transport Users (FNAUT), which condemned “uninspired politicians” for failing to tackle the problem head-on.

“We need long-term solutions including extra charges on heavy goods vehicles which the government backtracked from implementing last year,” FNAUT spokesman Fabrice Michel told FRANCE 24, in reference to the proposed “Ecotax” that had truckers up in arms in 2014.

“Paris also needs a congestion charge inside the city,” he added. “This would reduce circulation and raise revenue. But all our politicians seem to do is wait for the rain and when it doesn’t come, they blame the weather for their failings.”

City Hall rejected this criticism, and insisted it was doing everything possible to find long-term solutions to the pollution problem.

“We’re already investing heavily in improving public transport and the most polluting cars [diesel cars made before 2001] will be banned starting in July,” said Christophe Najdovski, spokesman for the Paris’s transport commissioner.

Najdovski added that a London-style congestion charge levied on motorists in central Paris was off the cards – “the mayor believes it is unjust” – but insisted everything was being done to encourage people to go clean.

“A big problem is the périphérique [city ring road] which is just about the busiest urban motorway in Europe,” he added. “It’s used by a million cars a day, and we can’t just stop people from using it.”

Diesel cars the big offenders

Without a let-up in the weather, and with government refusing all but the latest applications from Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo to implement a partial and temporary ban on cars [based on number plates that begin with an odd or even number – the governments says a partial ban can go ahead on Monday if the pollution worsens], Parisians will have to carry on breathing in the smog.

The Plume Labs index which gave Paris the worrying score of 125 on Wednesday includes various pollutants, but the main offenders are the fine particles emitted by diesel vehicles, according to Patrick Kinney, an air pollution epidemiologist and professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

The dangerous particulate matter floating in the air above Paris comes in two sizes, PM10 (from smoke and dirt) to the much smaller PM2.5 which contains toxic organic compounds and heavy metals and brings serious long-term health implications, from wheezing and asthma and even lung cancer.

According to Kinney, pollution in Paris is more noticeable than in big cities in the US because of the much larger number of diesel vehicles on French roads.

“Riding a bike in Paris, versus riding a bike in New York, you can really notice the difference,” said Kinney. “That’s probably because of the amount of diesel cars.”

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