On diesel and children’s lungs

Ljupco Popovski


Last week’s protests by employees at the Clinical Center about the amount of the monthly parking ticket for the staff were a surprise to the public, both for their fervor and their arguments of dissatisfaction. Suddenly, it turned out that it was such a big problem that even Prime Minister Zoran Zaev should intervene in its resolution. It seems strange that the Prime Minister of the country should be solving a communal problem, but that is Macedonia – it lives on paradoxes.

Let Zaev solve the problem of the price of the monthly ticket at the Clinical Center, let Minister Venko Filipce and Mayor Petre Shilegov come and land a helping hand if they think that this is such an important thing that could undermine the functioning of this great healthcare system. In all that tension, nobody mentioned the most important thing in this tricky situation-how the enormous number of vehicles in the yard of the Clinical Center affects the health of both patients and employees. Or it does not matter at all. Only the comfort is important – for those who come and those who work there.

If someone read the study published a month ago in one of the oldest and today’s most prestigious medical journal in the world, the Lancet (and which has caused great influence in Europe), on the impact of diesel vehicle pollution on children, may be thinking otherwise. But just maybe.

What did the panel of top British researchers announce about the consequences of diesel on the health of children in this extensive study?

This study has shown that pollution from diesel cars stops the development of children’s lungs, damaging them for a lifetime. Medicine has already proven that childhood and adolescence are periods of rapid growth, when organic systems are particularly susceptible to injuries. Since the diesel emits a large amount of particularly harmful particles of nitrogen dioxide, they cause permanent damage if their level exceeds the levels allowed by law. British researchers found that children’s lung capacity was reduced by five percent if these particles were above the allowed level. British scientists explain that the capacity of the lung reaches its peak at 18, and then starts to fall. And if in those 18 years a girl, or boy, already has a reduced lung capacity that continues to further weaken naturally, the risk of premature death significantly increases.

The impact of pollution from diesel engines is not only in London, where this research was done among students, but other studies have shown that the same or similar consequences exist in much of Europe, and even in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, where pollution is at a lower level than in other countries. But it is reported that California data show that children’s lung damage was reduced after improving air quality from 1994 to 2011.

It is superfluous to ask questions about whether such researches were made in Macedonia. This is a poor country with small resources of all kinds, so attempts at comparison are sometimes even obscene. But that does not mean that the state should not try to reduce pollution. For example, in the Clinical Center, where people and children come to the treatment. When the government decided to increase the excise tax on diesel, it was interpreted as a kind of coup against its own people. The citizens were angry, the opposition represented it as a terrible and unpardonable blow to poverty, and government trustees were struggling to explain this measure, and that it was not just about filling the budget. The basic point – that it is done to reduce pollution and demotivation for the purchase of diesel cars, whose combustion is more damaging than the carbon dioxide emissions, has remained on the margins of ignorance to explain something that can be easily presented. Fuel prices in Europe since Monday, for example, show that diesel is more expensive in 15 countries, cheaper in just as many, and in seven countries the value is equalized. In most countries of our closest neighborhood, such as Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, diesel is even significantly more expensive, and in Slovenia and Kosovo prices are almost equal. Are these countries where diesel is more expensive have made some kind of a coup for their citizens or is it part of a longer-term strategy like slowly getting diesel cars off the streets.

Two weeks ago it was announced that 21,000 second-hand cars were imported in Macedonia by September, which is 5,200 vehicles more than the same period last year. Like all these years, most of these vehicles are on a diesel engine. Did the state think that this uncontrolled import increases the risk to citizens’ health or not? Or it is more important to buy an apparent social peace when, because of the same old cars, the number of patients in polyclinics and hospitals increases, and the sums dedicated to health must grow dramatically. In fact, does anyone care about that at all?

And this is not happening in Macedonia alone. After European cities began to ban the use of diesel vehicles from Western Europe, hundreds of thousands of vehicles began to flow to its eastern part. With already reduced prices, because no one wants them anywhere in the west. According to the data, Poland in 2017 has imported even 350,000 second-generation diesel-powered vehicles with the highest emissions. The vast majority of them emit 1,000 milligrams of nitric oxide per kilometer, which is 12.5 times the permitted limit of the European Union. Last year, Bulgaria imported 100,000 used vehicles from European countries, of which more than one third are terribly polluting diesel engines. The situation is certainly the same, if not worse, in Macedonia with new imported second-hand vehicles. Is there any record of that? It is difficult to answer affirmatively to this question. Is there any intention to reduce imports of these vehicles that are being cleaned from German streets because of bans in most major cities? This is also difficult to answer. Does anyone think seriously to deal with reducing street traffic in Skopje, for example, rather than introducing air purifiers into classrooms and kindergartens that do not solve anything? This is also difficult to answer.

Basically, Skopje, Bitola, Kumanovo, Tetovo, they lack strategy (at least some, because now there is none) to reduce traffic on their streets. Because half of Macedonia lives in Skopje, the capital faces the biggest problem. Urban public transport breaks down, Chinese double-decker buses break one by one, and those who work are counted among the largest polluters (and the biggest consumers, because according to GSP drivers they spend at least 50 liters of diesel per hundred kilometers). Shilegov is urging Skopjans to reduce the use of cars and to switch to city transport. It is a nice call, only the city of Skopje can not provide them with a basically reliable and decent city transport. And that’s where the knot gets even more tangles and no one wants to untangle it.

Obviously, help is needed from someone who has greater knowledge, greater experience and is instructive. The example of the Chinese megalopolis Chengdu (15m) may not be adequate, but is illustrative. In order to create a new settlement of hundreds of thousands of people, Chengdu authorities have invited two famous Chicago architects to organize life in it. Chicago’s architects have thus conceptualized the neighborhood that it is easier to go than driving, so the streets were designed so that everywhere you walk in 15 minutes on foot. Of course, money is needed to do this. But the example is illustrative because it calls for help where you can not solve the problem yourself.

What Skopje needs now is assistance from international urbanists with a higher level of knowledge. The money to be paid will have a 100-fold return. And mostl of all for those the study of British researchers warns about – the children. Because it is quite likely that the infestation of diesel cars in Skopje reduces their lung capacity by more than five percent as in their London peers.