Warsaw's Air Makes the News
Beijing-level air pollution. Really, WTF? We knew Krakow had this problem, but you..? We thought you were different. This is disgusting. You have to change.
Mr. & Mrs.
Now, the Mrs. and I knew that Poland was still "developing" before we moved here. There are always certain things that come along with that stigma, but, honestly, Beijing-level air quality is not something we anticipated. At least not in Warsaw. Krakow, we knew, has infamously crappy air. But the capital was supposed to be fine (as far as modern capitals go). However, it's not. Besides seeing the pollution, on the bad days, you can actually smell it.
Everyone here in Warsaw is a bit perplexed about the pollution because, they say, it hasn't happened before. Different things get blamed. Some say it's Warsaw's "terrible traffic". But if you've ever driven through Moscow, Rome, LA, or on Highway 101, Warsaw's traffic is a joke. Plus, like the rest of Europe, the vast majority of the cars here are relatively modern (with modern air pollution controls), so this is a different beast from 1970's Los Angeles-style smog.
As the NYT article points out, and it's what I think given the smell, the main culprit is old-fashioned home heating. About 20% of Warsaw still heats their homes via burning various things like coal, wood and, apparently, garbage (cuz hey, why not?). So as the temperature drops, people burn more to stay warm, and theoretically, they burn the worst polluters (like garbage) when it's the coldest, as they're cheaper.
In this photo of our flat, you see the white tile thing on the left, which is a typical, old-fashioned Polish heating stove.
If you look closely, through the plant, you can see a dark rectangle. That's actually an iron door leading to what once was the firebox. Whatever you were burning went in there. The smoke went up a chimney in the wall. And the tiles held and dispersed the heat throughout the apartment. A pretty smart piece of engineering actually, if this was 1825. (For the record, our stove has been converted to run on electricity. If you heat it up, the tiles take about 24 hours to cool down, proving how efficient these things can be).
Here's a photo of an unconverted stove from a building I was looking at for work. This one still burns coal, or wood, or garbage.
These stoves are, literally, in every pre-WWII Polish building. And while most have been converted to run on electricity or gas, many have not. Which is why I think the main problem lies with these stoves. The part that remains unclear is how this hasn't been a problem until now? The only decent explanation I've heard is a change in the air current, which, until this year, blew all the smoky crap away from Warsaw toward Belarus.
The pollution really hit home one night when the Mrs. went out for a walk with her friend and her dogs. The night was cold and foggy, and they walked around a park for about two hours. The next morning, she woke up coughing her lungs out in the same way she would after going to a party where everyone is smoking inside. Suddenly, all our friends' coughing stories started making more sense, and the strange smell in the air became a little more ominous.
We've since downloaded an app called Plume, which tracks air pollution levels around the world, including in Warsaw, so at least we can avoid the worst times to go out. Of course, this crap seeps into the house as well, so I decided to dig around the internet to find a way to help The Mrs. and I stay as healthy as possible without dropping a $1,000 on a high-end air purifier.
I found this guy and his blog, and his DIY air purifier, and, of course, figured I could just build one myself. A bit of shopping around, one, okay two, failed attempts later, and voila:
A HEPA filter (cut in half), a box fan and two tie-down straps later... my homemade air purifier. I don't have any measuring devices to test how well it works, but I feel better when it's running. So, even if it's psychosomatic, it's better than nothing. Meanwhile, I hope the Polish government is getting on this ASAP.