The year 2020 has just began, and it already marked a first ever for me: the first year that I started to worry about the air quality in Romania and especially the air quality of the city that I live in right now, Drobeta Turnu Severin.
This winter was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, with the air impossible to breathe in some occasions. The air quality is so bad that you don’t even need a fancy tool to test it: your nostrils are enough.
Smog is now a reality here in Romania. Whenever it’s foggy in my city (and most likely in most places in the country), the air becomes hard to breathe. It feels like you’re behind an old car, breathing in all its exhaust.
It’s so bad that once, after a 60 minutes walk around the city during the evening, when I got home, my clothes smelled bad. Something that I never thought possible anywhere in Romania.
Funnily enough, it seems that I am not the only one who started to get worried about the poor air quality in Romania. While nobody really seems to care about the smaller cities in the country, the larger ones where more voices can be heard, are already drawing alarms about this very important matter.
There has been recent chatter about the very poor air quality in Bucharest – Romania’s capital – where the quality of the air was as low is it was in the Australian regions affected by the massive bushfires this year (statement made by Romania’s environment minister).
Interesting enough, there are a few official air quality monitoring systems in Bucharest – and throughout Romania – but these are placed in the least polluted areas: inside parks and near forests in Bucharest, for example; or near the Danube, away from the city in my case.
They also check just one of the important pollutants nowadays (and sometimes none, just various gases): the PM 10, while the 2.5 PM should also be monitored.
Because of these gimmicks, the authorities have official data that says that the air quality in Romania is acceptable or good. Which is definitely not the case.
Why is the air quality so low in Romania?
There are a few reasons why the quality of the air that we breathe here in Romania has been going down over the past several years. As I said, it is my first ever year when I actually have trouble breathing when I go out.
I can’t open the windows early in the morning or after 5 PM, because that horrible smell gets into my room! This is unacceptable and scary at the same time.
One of the main reasons that makes everything worse is the time of the year: it’s winter now when I am writing this article and winter comes with two things: cloudy skies (that trap all that pollution below them) and people heating their homes.
In Romania, a big portion of the heating is done by burning wood. Almost all houses in my city have wood burning stoves, and you can imagine how bad it gets when the smoke from all of them starts floating in the air. But also the cities’ add to the pollution of the air with their heating methods, sometimes powered by coal.
The number of cars has grown like crazy. And since Romania is not one of the wealthiest countries around, we’re usually talking about old, second hand cars brought from Western Europe. And these are worse to the environment than new ones are.
In my city alone, in the area that I moved into when I bought the apartment in 2014, you could easily see the growing number of cars through the increased difficulty in finding a parking spot.
While in 2014 I never had a problem finding a spot right in front of my apartment building, now I have to scour the area and sometimes park 200-300 meters away.
Plus, everybody I know is complaining about the increasing number of cars: the people here no longer seem to consider it enough having a car for the family, but a car for each member of the family. And this doesn’t help with the air quality problem!
And there are other factors that contribute as well: illegal burning of waste and garbage, intensive construction work in most cities and various factories that are close to the living areas… all these make the air that we breathe dangerous. And it seems that it all gets worse during the winter when nature can’t clean it as fast as it would if the skies were clear.
Is the air quality really that low in Romania?
Even though there has been a change in stance recently, most of the official data says that the air quality here is within the legal parameters.
However, since it’s 2020 and gadgets for measuring the air quality are easier to obtain, and there are also NGOs that like to take the matters into their own hands, we don’t have to rely on the official data alone – which might not be complete (not counting all the important air pollutants).
I have personally bought an air purifier for my room last year. I did that because I suffer from all sorts of allergies and the air purifier helps keep the air clean and it has really helped. But it also shows me the quality of the air in my room.
When I got it, it was initially showing an AQ of 30 (which is not great, but OK), going down to 2 (which is great) after running for a few hours. And it kept going like this – more ore less – during the year. But when winter came, as soon as I open the winter (to let clean air in – I thought), the air quality drops instantly to 50 and above.
The worst it got was to 120 – when you entered the room it felt like there had been a car running there for a while.
It’s not just my air purifier who shows that the air quality in Romania is really low: a website called AerLive.ro was launched to measure the real air quality in Bucharest (by NGOs and other organisations) and the results are really bad especially in the evening and during the night.
I also remember that there was an NGO that measured the air quality worldwide (also in Romania) through their own tools that individuals could order, use and share the data – but I wasn’t able to find that website again.
I remember that it showed much worse data than the official one, simply because it measured all the pollutants, including the PM 2.5 and PM 10. (If anybody knows that website, please share it).
Since this was not official data, the Romania authorities claimed that they won’t accept them, as the tools used are not approved by them. Fortunately, we live in a decade where the truth breaks through easier and faster than during any other period, so people are slowly getting aware of the problem.
What can you do about the low air quality in Romania?
Right now, there is not much you can do about this. The government will probably start rolling out some measures that will improve things a bit – but it will be slow and difficult.
However, it’s good to know that the worst air is measured during the winter – and during this time, we don’t have a ton of people visiting the country. So as long as you’re not here in the winter, things will look much better.
The environment minister also recommended people in Bucharest to wear face masks to protect themselves against pollution.
This will definitely draw in some stares on the streets, but I’ve already seen people wearing masks in my small city, so in the end it’s your decision: if you care more about stares than you do about your health, don’t wear them!
Finally, try to stay inside during the peak air pollution times: strange or not, these are usually during the evening and over the night. When you go out during these times, don’t run in order to reduce the amount of air you take in. This sounds like advice from sci-fi movies. So sad it’s becoming reality!
If you want to actively do your part in keeping the country (and the world) clean, reduce the amount of time you spend in a car, reduce waste as much as possible (as most of it is burned in Romania, causing massive pollution) and support the NGOs and organizations that are trying to save the planet.
But we’ve definitely got a tough fight ahead of us and until then, we don’t really have much of a choice than to know that the air quality in all cities around the country is really low – especially during the winter.