Plagued By Smog, Krakow Struggles To Break Its Coal-Burning Habit : Parallels Russian gas is expensive, so many Poles still rely on coal. Krakow is one of the most polluted cities in the EU's most polluted country. All that coal is akin to "smoking 2,000 cigarettes per year."
NPR logo

Plagued By Smog, Krakow Struggles To Break Its Coal-Burning Habit

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/394878756/398948742" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Plagued By Smog, Krakow Struggles To Break Its Coal-Burning Habit

Plagued By Smog, Krakow Struggles To Break Its Coal-Burning Habit

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/394878756/398948742" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

The Polish city of Krakow is known for its rich history and culture - and also its air pollution. Health officials say Krakow has some of the most polluted air in all of Poland. That country has the most polluted air of any country in the entire European Union, so that's quite a distinction. A smog hangs over Krakow during the colder months of the year. That's because its residents are burning coal in their homes to stay warm. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson traveled to Krakow and found that few who live there are willing to stop.

ARLETA WOLEK: (Speaking Polish).

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Arleta Wolek shows off her coal-burning stove in her basement in this hillside Krakow neighborhood. The furnace is four years old, and she feeds it from a nearby pile of coal that's almost as tall as she is.

WOLEK: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: "I used to have gas, but switched to coal because it's warmer," the 73-year-old says. Like many people here, she doesn't believe coal use at home is the main reason for the smog that hangs over the city like a dirty blanket, but she is nevertheless switching back to gas. That's because the local government last year began paying for residents to convert their heating systems to get them to abandon coal.

WOLEK: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: The retiree says she's looking forward to not having to walk down to the basement twice a day to fill her furnace.

WOLEK: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: It can take up to a year to get the refund. But Wolek is more worried about how she will pay for gas on her fixed income. Most of that gas comes from Russia and costs twice as much as coal does here. Affordability is a major reason why only a minority has signed up for the city's furnace conversion program. Most Krakow residents continue to burn coal. Their intransigence leaves the air here hazy and sour-smelling.

DR. EVA KONDURACKA: Living in Krakow, it means smoking 2,000 cigarettes per year.

NELSON: That's Dr. Eva Konduracka, who describes the impact the air here has on her and other Krakow residents' lungs. The cardiologist says smog is causing 30 percent of the chronic obstructive lung disease cases doctors treat here. High cancer rates are also linked to the toxins people are breathing.

KONDURACKA: In Krakow, every three hour new case of malignant tumor is diagnosed in one person.

NELSON: One of those people was Anna Krokosz. She died only days after being diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago, says her daughter, Aleksandra Bedek.

ALEKSANDRA BEDEK: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: She says her 77-year-old mother never smoked a day of her life, but coughed all the time. Bedek, who is 58, says she coughs a lot, too. She avoids spending any more time outdoors than necessary because of the smog.

BEDEK: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: Even so, the smell of her neighbors coal smoke seeps into her apartment. She says "whenever the wind stops, I feel like I'm suffocating, especially when I'm lying in bed at night."

BEDEK: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: Bendek says she considers breathing the air here to be a death sentence. So does Anna Dworakowska. The 35-year-old comes from a forested area in the Northeast dubbed The Green Lungs of Poland because of its clean air. Two years ago, she co-founded a grass-roots movement here called the Krakow Smog Alert Campaign. She says the pollution in the city was worse 20 years ago.

ANNA DWORAKOWSKA: We had much more industry, which was closed down after the anti-Communist revolution. But on the other hand, we know much more about the impact of our pollution on our health than 20 years ago.

NELSON: She says a big problem is the concentration of benzo(a)pyrene, which is found in coal tar and is highly carcinogenic. Because of coal emissions, Poles breathe in five times the EU norms, Dworakowska says.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRAKOW SMOG ALERT CAMPAIGN RADIO AD)

NELSON: This radio ad by the Krakow Smog Alert Campaign is meant to warn residents about the dangers of the air they breathe here. The group's advocacy was key in getting local officials to adopt a ban on residential wood and coal burning in the city starting in 2018. But a regional court overturned the measure last summer, declaring it unconstitutional. That ruling was quickly appealed, and so far the proposed ban remains in legal limbo. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Parallels

Many Stories, One World

About