Air pollution in eastern Europe adds to pandemic health woes

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The Bosnian capital of Sarajevo is covered by layers of fog, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. With the arrival of cold and foggy winter weather, eastern Europe is facing another health hazard in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, namely dangerous air pollution. (AP Photo/Eldar Emric)

SARAJEVO – SARAJEVO, Bosnia-With the arrival of cold and foggy winter weather amid the pandemic, eastern Europe is facing an extra respiratory health hazard — air pollution.

Countries such as Bosnia and Serbia in the Balkans, and even European Union nations Poland and Croatia, traditionally report high levels of dangerous pollution from heating in winter months.

The United Nations has warned in previous years that people in all major cities across the Western Balkans face alarming levels of air pollution that are reducing their life expectancies. This year, the problem is coupled with the soaring COVID-19 infections.

Thousands of new cases have been reported daily in most countries in the region. Hospitals are practically full and many departments treating other diseases or chronic ailments have been converted to COVID-19 wards, bringing the health systems in the former Communist-run nations near breaking-point.

“We have this pressure from two sides now, one (from the virus) and another from polluted air,” said Igor Spaic, a resident of Bosnia's capital Sarajevo, which is one of the most polluted cities in Europe.

“Smog is dangerous for children and corona is dangerous for older people ... there is great pressure on people and their lives today here,” Spaic added.

Sarajevo on Thursday was enveloped in thick smog as authorities warned high-risk groups to reduce activity and told schools to keep children inside.

Dirty air is a chronic problem in Sarajevo which is nestled in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains, and has few anti-pollution measures in place. The city has some 270,000 residents in the central zone and 413,000 in the wider area.