Czech authorities fail to issue timely smog alerts

Don’t hold your breath for news from official sources; there’s little political will to tackle pollution or inform about it

Čestmír Klos 17.11.2011

Aplikace SmogAlarm vznikla na Ostravsku, kde je v některých místech zaznamenáno vysoké zdravotní poškození obyvatel smogem. Až čtyřicet procent nejmenších dětí tu prožívá astmatická muka. foto: © ČESKÁ POZICEČeská pozice

Aplikace SmogAlarm vznikla na Ostravsku, kde je v některých místech zaznamenáno vysoké zdravotní poškození obyvatel smogem. Až čtyřicet procent nejmenších dětí tu prožívá astmatická muka.

The Czech Republic has been engulfed by a thick, dirty smog in recent days, with the pollution levels so far above the permissible limits that children and seniors (not to mention asthmatics) have been — belatedly — advised to stay indoors. With public health officials and politicians slow to issue warnings, a new smart phone application developed in “dirty Ostrava” is helping to fill the gap.

The word “smog” is a portmanteau of smoke and fog, describing the modern phenomenon of air pollution derived mainly from vehicular emission and industrial fumes that react in the atmosphere with sunlight to form secondary pollutants, which in turn combine with the primary emissions to form photochemical smog. It is also caused by large amounts of coal burning — still a common heating source in Czech villages — prevalent in an area and caused by a mixture of smoke, sulfur dioxide and other components.

Running on devices with the Android platform, the SmogAlarm app, which can be downloaded for free, links from your mobile phone to the nearest Czech station monitoring air quality. According to the level of pollution, your phone screen will show a different color (from code green to code red, so to speak, although the scheme actually runs from light blue “very good” to purple “very poor”).

It also informs the user as to how much the air pollution is exceeding the established health limits. To put it mildly, the system has left Czech officials in the dust as for getting out public notices. And it’s not just those living in industrial cities like “dirty Ostrava” who should be concerned — Prague, too, is a smog paradise.

Take the official seat of the Environment Ministry, for example, in the Vršovice district (Prague 10), where the air pollution reached the highest level (grade six) this week. In fact, according to a former Green Party (SZ) councilor at the ministry, Petr Štěpánek, all monitoring stations in the Czech capital registered grade five levels, not just those in low-lying areas.

Yet the “grand coalition” in Prague City Hall — a marriage of convenience between the center-right Civic Democrats (ODS) and center-left Social Democrats (ČSSD) — has shown little enthusiasm for tackling pollution in the city or even bothering to inform the citizenry about the dangers. It took a day and a half for the city to issue a signal alert about the possibility of smog, though it was at already at record levels 

This past Sunday, the so-called smog map was the color purple — meaning the airborne pollution was between 80 and 140 micrograms per cubic meter, or “very poor”; it took a day and a half for the municipality to issue a “signal alert to the possibility of the occurrence of smog.”

That warning of “possible” smog came after several days with airborne pollutant above the record level of January 2010, when the situation called for vigorous action — and in contravention of legislation about health-risk notifications. What’s more, the monitoring station at one of the city’s most polluted stretches, the Prague “hotspot” of Legerova Street, which becomes the Nusle Bridge, has been sent to Germany for repairs and was not replaced by a mobile station.

Heavy industry in and around Prague has been mostly shut down over the past two decades, but during that time air pollution from transport has made up the difference. There’s an amendment to the Clean Air Act that calls for establishing permanent low-emissions zones to combat the smog, but not one has been created. Instead, there are periodic calls for commuters to leave their cars at home during critical periods, but these calls often come late and fall on deaf ears.

And while no councilman is willing to stick his neck out by imposing unpopular measures to tackle the problem, clean air advocates say on the national level leaders must be held accountable. Part of that entails tracking emissions rates over time.

SmogAlarm clears the air

During the first five days that the SmogAlarm app, created by Stanislav Ubík, became available, some 6,000 people in the Czech Republic downloaded it. The Ostrava non-profit company Čisté nebe/Clean Skies provides the service, which draws on data from the Czech Hydrometeorological Institute (ČHMÚ) — see the current air quality conditions by clicking here — which is under the auspices of the Ministry of Environment.

Based on this app — and not official public warnings — mothers across the country this past week decided whether to send their children took school or let them go to the local playground. SmogAlarm can also be used on construction sites, for example, or anywhere that a large number of people regularly work outdoors. Hampering its widespread use, however, is the fact it requires Android 1.6 or higher, and those without smart phones will be left in the dark.

Apart from that, smaller municipalities don’t have the extensive monitoring stations in use in major cities like Prague and Ostrava, although the nearest station can be determined via GSM/3G or WiFi networks, or GPS devices. All this allows users to have access to the relevant data as fast as a meteorologist.

Meanwhile, large software developers could easily create devices similar to that of Ubík’s SmogAlarm for less sophisticated phones (which, for example, the seniors who are likely to suffer ill and lasting effects from smog are less unlikely to own). Doing so could also raise the general level of environmental awareness — in Ostrava, where the app was developed, people are already well aware of the health problems they are experiencing due to airborne pollution — and bring calls for cleaner air by affected communities.

See related article: Pollution causes genetic change in Czech population of smog city

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Čestmír Klos

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