Bulgaria’s killer air exposes wider EU problems

This article is part of our special report Air Quality.

Chronic pollution makes Bulgaria one of the world’s deadliest places to live because of poor air quality, despite years of efforts to improve monitoring and comply with EU standards. But Bulgaria's problems are not isolated and reflect broader concerns over air quality among EU member states.

Bulgaria has made steady progress in improving environmental monitoring and adopting regulations on air, water and environmental quality since joining the EU in 2007.

Analysts say such steps have been followed by hollow enforcement and neglect by both national and EU authorities.

“We have very good laws and monitoring systems in place, but the biggest problem is we have no state agency that can enforce the laws,” said Georgi Stefanov, policy and climate change officer for the environmental group WWF. “We have everything but enforcement.”

As the European Commission begins to weigh changes to the EU's 2008 air quality directive, analysts say Bulgaria – like many other EU countries – is failing at enforcement.

The Commission is expected to revamp its air quality standards no later than 2013.

Heavy industrialisation left a toxic legacy in Bulgaria at the end of communism in 1989, but today’s problems centre on outmoded energy and industrial infrastructure, and an ageing transport fleet.

Poverty also contributes, says Stefanov, with large pockets of itinerant communities dependent on wood and other fuels for heating and cooking – spewing hazards to both indoor and outdoor air quality.

Poor air quality has deadly consequences in Bulgaria as well as Romania, which trail only Armenia in having the world’s second highest mortality rates from urban air pollution, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The UNDP’s 2011 Human Development Report, released on 2 November, shows that while the annual death rate from poor air quality is slightly higher in Romania (439 deaths per million people compared to 437 in Bulgaria), Bulgaria leads Europe in the intensity of air pollution, ranking in the top one-quarter of the most polluted of the 187 countries included in the report.

Only Armenia has a higher annual mortality rate than the two EU countries – 882 per million population in a country of 3 million people.

The UNDP’s findings drive home the extreme risks of polluted air beyond Bulgaria, which has an urban pollution level that is double the regional average. EU candidate Turkey also has high levels of urban pollution, 37 microgrammes per cubic meter, exceeding the regional average of 25 microgrammes per cubic meter, says the report.

And within the current EU, the Commission has taken action against 20 EU members for air quality violations.

No monopoly on bad air

Though the EU air quality directive is due for a revamp, some health experts say indoor and outdoor air quality do not get enough attention.

“Many of the policy decisions that are currently being made often neglect or fail to take into account health concerns sufficiently,” said Juha Pekkanen, a physician who heads the environmental health department at the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland.

Pekkanen says air pollution is a serious health threat, noting that as many as 2,000 Finns die each year because of long-term exposure to particulate matter. He urges stronger policies aimed at cutting air pollution through cleaner-burning fuels and improvements in energy and transport efficiency.

Environmentalists also fear that often-conflicting EU and national rules – from a focus on diesel and biofuels in transport, to energy policies that still subsidise the coal industry – neglect the need for air-quality improvements.

Air pollutants that include sulphur dioxide emitted from burning coal to lead contained in motor fuels contributed to the premature deaths of 370,000 across Europe in 2000. And even with stronger air quality standards aimed at drastic reductions in toxins, the European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates the death rate will still be 230,000 in 2020.

EEA statistics show that in the past decade, 20% to 50% of city dwellers in the EU were exposed to levels of particulates in excess of the daily standards, contributing to short-term effects such as itchy eyes and sinus problems to long-term respiratory, heart ailments and cancer.

But policies, no matter how well-meaning, don’t always yield the best results. The EU has pushed diesel over gasoline because it is more efficient and emits less carbon dioxide, even though it produces more particulate pollution that is harmful to humans. Biofuels are cleaner than their fossil-fuel counterparts, yet there is an open debate about whether their production is more harmful to air quality as  well as their impact on land and water resources.

Even shifting sentiments about the safety of nuclear energy can result in reversal for air quality. In the short term, countries like Belgium and Germany that are vowing a phase-out of atomic power will need fossil fuels to fill the gap between demand on supply.

Bad air days in Bulgaria

Bulgaria, meanwhile, is credited with dramatic improvements in pollution monitoring and, following earlier frictions, working with Romania to develop pollution monitoring in border communities along the Danube in an effort to comply with UN agreements on transboundary pollution.

Yet Bulgaria has a long way to go to put in practice what national laws and EU rules put on paper. Last year, the Commission warned the country that it was violating limits on sulphur dioxide, typically emitted by coal plants, an ingredient in acid rain and in high concentrations, can cause serious respiratory problems in humans.

WWF’s Stefanov says he routinely complains to authorities in his Sofia neighbourhood about illegal fires – from burning refuse to tyres set alight so the metal can be recovered for recycling – to little avail.

Older vehicles – mostly imported from other EU countries – contribute to urban smog, he says, something that could be addressed through a premium tax on polluting cars. The government and municipalities have been slower than private companies to modernise publicly owned electricity and heating plants with smokestack scrubbers.

He sees little political resolve with much political energy spent on economic growth and job-creation.

“Not one of our politicians is connecting air pollution to health,” he said, a day after the 30 October presidential and local elections in the country. And he said the European Commission is too complacent in enforcing air quality and other environmental rules.

“They wait, wait, wait until it is too late.”


Air pollution has different particulate matter (PM) components – smoke, dirt and dust form coarse particles known as PM10, and metals and toxic exhaust from smelting, vehicle exhaust, power plants and refuse burning forming fine particles called PM2.5.

The 2008 air quality directive aimed at streamlining and tightening EU legislation dealing with pollution and air standards. It is due to be revised by 2013, and Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik seeks to consolidate many different EU regulations on air quality and pollution into a single law.

The 2008 rules set targets for reducing concentrations of fine particles that health officials say are dangerous pollutants for human health and that contribute to respiratory, sinus and other problems.

Under the directive member states must cut exposure to fine particulate matter by an average of 20% by 2020, based on 2010 levels.

Many of the policies grow out of a 2005 strategy on air pollution, which sought to cut sulpher dioxide (SO2) emissions by 82%, nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by 60%, volatile organic compounds by 51%, ammonia by 27%, and primary fine particulates by 59% compared to the levels of 2000.

Health advocates says the cost of cutting emissions through better smokestack scrubbers, cleaner-burning vehicles and a shift to renewable fuels would be more than offset by savings in treating complications of bad air.


January-mid-2012: Consultation phase on revisions to the EU's air quality directive.

Early 2013: Revised directive to European Parliament for consideration.

2013: 'Year of Air' as declared by Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik.

Further Reading