COVID-19 lectures on reducing air pollution in Tirana

The National Environment Agency and the Institute of Public Health report a reduction of up to 60% in air pollution in Tirana due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, but environmental experts consider this an “accident” and warn of a return to the previous state once the country has been fully opened to business.

With an electronic device in hand, Arion Sauku from the environmental organization “Mileukontakt” has been measuring for two years the air quality in Tirana – the most polluted city in Albania. In March, he saw drastic reductions in pollution levels for the first time in two years, almost double under the European Union’s permitted rate.

Sauku says the new data did not excite him. As soon as the government stopped the movement of cars and the movement of citizens as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic, the regeneration of nature and the disappearance of the dense cloud of smog over Tirana was a “side effect” expected for local environmental monitors. Air quality improvement as a result of measures to prevent the new coronavirus pandemics are also confirmed by the National Environment Agency and the Institute of Public Health, the two institutions responsible for the official measurement of air quality in Albania.

The National Environment Agency told Faktoje that in two measurements carried out in late March and early April, the level of air pollution from dangerous PM 10 particles had dropped by 60%, compared to the same period last year.

NEA graphic

From the monitoring conducted on March 28, the presence of PM 10 in the air was 21.77µg / m³; less than half of the permitted EU rate of 50 µg / m³ for the first time in many years. The lowest PM 10 rate in the air was recorded on April 5, 2020 at 12.8 µg / m³.

PM 10 particles are among the main air pollutants in Tirana and are blamed as the cause of a series of dangerous diseases. According to the National Environment Agency, the presence of PM 10 in the air in 2019 was approximately 20% higher than the EU norm and there were cases when it exceeded this rate more than twice.

Dust particles, mainly caused by construction sites in Tirana, are not the only polluters. The Institute of Public Health also reports significant reductions in air emissions during March and April quarantine months.

According to the Institute of Public Health, levels of SO2 (sulfur dioxide), CO (carbon monoxide), NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) and benzene have almost halved. Meanwhile, the level of O3 (ozone) has increased during March and April.

Institute of Public Health graphic

The National Environmental Agency blames the large turnover of vehicles and the construction sector for the high level of air pollution in Tirana over the years. The agency points out that particles with a diameter of PM 10, PM 2.5 and PM 1 are the cause of a number of diseases dangerous to the population.

“Dust particles… penetrate deep into the lungs, causing worsening of breathing, especially in the elderly, people with heart disease, heart attack and arrhythmia. PM can damage the central nervous system, the production system and can cause cancer,” said the National Environmental Agency, adding that PM particles can also cause premature death.

Air Improvement, an “Accident”

The air quality improvement in Tirana as a result of drastic measures against the spread of SARS-CoV-2 infection is considered an “accident” by environmental experts in Albania. Environmental activists worry that once restrictions are lifted and people return to normalcy, air parameters in Tirana could deteriorate further than in the pre-pandemic period.

“COVID might pass, but I would like for the citizens to hold on to their masks, as pollution will return,” said Olsi Nika, a biologist by profession and executive director of the environmental organization Eco Albania. “There is no element of surprise, because for cities like Tirana, the main polluters are not industrial, but polluters that take cars out of the exhaust,” he added. Environmental expert Mihallaq Qirjo told “Faktoje” that the situation with COVID-19 clearly showed that the main polluters of Tirana are already known in both categories, dust and gases. “Generally, the pollution in Tirana preserves the pollution model that comes from a bad infrastructure. So, a very high percentage of fine dust is typical of poor road quality, their lack of washing, the presence of potholes or even the passage of large cars loaded with inerts,” he explains.

Qirjo also notes with concern the increase in pollution from chemical gases, which according to him are caused by the old public transport fleet in Tirana, the growing fleet of private vehicles and the poor quality of fuels. “I am not very optimistic that the post-COVID situation will maintain the same parameters, but I believe that there will be a kind of greater responsibility to manage the air than before the COVID period,” the expert added. For Arion Sauku of “Mileukontakt”, the liberation of the country from coercive measures means the immediate return of smog to the capital.

“If everything is reopened to business as before, the bus fleet of the Municipality of Tirana will be the same and the fleet of private vehicles will be the same, the fuel will be the same, the construction will be the same, I can say that the pollution will be the same, for not to say even higher, ”he said pessimistically.

Small progress

The new coronavirus pandemic, SARS-CoV-2, has affected hundreds of people in Albania and caused 31 casualties. Experts estimate that there is a dark link between pandemics and polluted air – which exposes people to diseases that worsen their chances of coping with COVID-19.

Environmental activists in Albania think that the state of emergency caused by pandemics could be a good lesson for decision-makers, so that the latter can address the high air pollution in Tirana. They also call for increased funding so that responsible institutions such as the National Environmental Agency can conduct periodic air quality measurements.

Arion Sauku told “Faktoje” that pandemics were a practical case that showed how air pollution could be reduced. “We saw that by reducing traffic, pollution falls… If Tirana’s bus fleet is renovated and traffic is limited to some problematic areas for a few hours, these are some of the measures that need to be taken by the central and local government,” he said.

In addition to restrictions on the movement of cars, experts Nika and Qirjo suggested higher quality control of fuel and construction sites as well as awareness raising amongst the population to leave cars at home. However, the two experts added that the mismanagement of institutions does not leave much room for hope. “Air quality is one of the areas that has made the least progress in Albania,” says Mihallaq Qirjo, while emphasizing that not even the minimum necessary to improve the parameters has been made. “Albania is the only country in the Balkans that does not report online on air quality,” he added.

Nika from Eco Albania claims that despite the efforts of environmental experts, the annual report on the state of the environment does not meet many obligations in Albania.

“If governments are to prioritize air quality, they need to loosen up a little more on the tap and give experts the budget they need to fully exercise the function they have. These institutions must also be open to cooperate with other organizations and institutions, which produce data,” concluded Nika.

This article is published within the framework of the project “Facts and  the Environment”, implemented by the Albanian Center for Quality Journalism and Faktoje, in the framework of the project “Towards Improving Labor Relations and Professionalism in the Albanian Media” supported by the European Union, implemented by the Albanian Media Institute and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). The sole responsibility for the content of this article lies with the author and under no circumstances can it be considered that it reflects the position of the European Union”.