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Paris mayor races to improve air quality ahead of marathon

Franck Fife, AFP file picture | The Eiffel tower in Paris was barely visible when the French capital briefly topped a list as the world’s most polluted city on March 18, 2015

The mayor of Paris has urged the government to be more reactive in dealing with the French capital’s pollution problem as a particularly intense smog episode threatens to dampen the mood for Sunday’s 50,000 Paris marathon runners.


“I will not allow for a major international sporting event with the spotlight on Paris to turn into a showcase of our failure to make the right decisions at the right time,” Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said late Thursday, aiming her frustration at the government which she claims has taken too long to respond to the capital’s air quality problems.

“We have to act today for the sake of the Parisians’ health and so the Paris marathon can become the international success it is every year,” she added.

Paris experienced the third consecutive day of “elevated levels” of air pollution Friday. Although the air appeared to be clearing somewhat, air monitoring website Plume Labs rated it as 86 points polluted on a 150-point scale, meaning the air was still dangerous to breathe on a regular basis.

Although the mayor has the power to make some calls to help reduce emergency smog episodes in Paris, such as offering free use of the city’s bike-sharing scheme Vélib’ and the Autolib’ electric cars, steeper measures -- including imposing the "alternating traffic" order -- have to go through the government for approval.

Hidalgo had previously said that unless air conditions improved before Saturday, she would call on the government to impose the alternating traffic measure, which also includes offering free public transport at an estimated cost of €4 million a day.

Environment Minister Ségolène Royal, who has slammed the mayor for being too demanding in previous situations, responded by saying she will appoint two experts to review how the decision process can be made more efficient when air pollution spikes.

According to the city’s air pollution watchdog Airparif, the alternating traffic measure has only been imposed in Paris three times before: on October 1 in 1997, March 17 in 2014 and finally on March 23 this year after Paris briefly topped a Plume Labs list of the world’s most polluted cities – putting it ahead of regular offenders such as Delhi and Beijing.

Looking brighter

The dangerous particulate matter hovering above Paris comes in two sizes: PM10 (from smoke and dirt) and the much smaller PM2.5 which contains toxic organic compounds and heavy metals. The latter carries serious long-term health implications which range from wheezing and asthma to lung cancer. The last spike in Paris has mainly consisted of PM10.

In the days leading up to Sunday’s marathon, which draws around 50,000 participants from around the world every year, Paris City Hall introduced a number of temporary measures to try to get the air quality under control, including restricted free use of the Vélib’ bicycles and Autolib’ cars. Heavy vehicles that usually transit through Paris have also been asked to bypass the city while speed limits have been reduced by 20 kilometres an hour for all city-bound traffic.

The air quality for the weekend looked promising however, with Airparif saying that winds would help dissipate the smog to a “weak” level.

Harder to breathe

Although experts say the current air quality should not pose any immediate risks to those taking part in the Paris marathon, especially considering the runners’ extraordinary fitness levels, they agree that the polluted air is definitely not healthy to breathe in.

“I think it’s unlikely that anyone will collapse, but sure, those who run will be affected more because the breathing rate is dramatically higher when you run,” Andrew Grieve, a senior air quality analyst at King’s College London told FRANCE 24.

In a question-and-answer column published by French broadcaster BFMTV, Doctor Alain Ducardonnet said: “Some (runners) might feel that it’s a little bit harder to breathe, that they’re out of breath a bit more, and that their throats and eyes may itch a little bit.”

“But you have to keep in mind that a marathon lasts between three to five hours and the real health effects are almost next to nothing during such short stints,” he said.

Repeated attempts by FRANCE 24 to try and reach the organisers of the Paris marathon for a comment on the air conditions, and the possible effects it could have on the event, went unanswered Friday.

London suffers similar problems

Just across the channel from France, Britain is experiencing similar problems. On Friday, experts warned runners preparing for the April 26 marathon in London to train indoors as air pollution in the British capital was set to hit its highest recordable level ahead of the weekend.

“The general, healthy population, if they’re training for the London Marathon, should very seriously consider not training [Friday] because the conditions will be very severe,” Simon Birkett, an air quality campaigner, said.

The rise in London’s pollution has been blamed on winds collecting industrial pollution blowing in from Eastern Europe.

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