Air pollution in Hungary decreases slowly but steadily
traffic and heating are the main culprits
A healthy adult takes 14-18 breaths a minute, so it’s easy to see why air pollution is a serious health hazard. In Hungary, the main threats to air quality are road traffic and outdated household heating. The most hazardous pollutants are nitrogen-oxide, dust particles, and increasing ground-level ozone.
Air quality is a basic qualitative factor of human life. Pollutants directly threaten people’s health, and damage our environment. Due to damage mitigation costs, air pollution is a burden on the economy as well. Consequently, lowering the emission of pollutants and thus improving (or preserving) the quality of air is in the interest of society as a whole.
The average air pollution level in Hungary is medium in international comparison. However, there are significant differences across regions and cities. The country’s air quality primarily depends on road traffic and outdated household heating, but pollution originated far away and carried by wind may occasionally play a role, too, depending on weather conditions. Thanks to stringent and rigorously enforced regulations, industrial emission has decreased recently.
Nitrogen-oxide (NOx) and small dust particle (PM10) levels periodically exceed the relevant health hazard thresholds near busy roads. Also, ground-level ozone pollution is rising (as in other European countries). In the heating season, nitrogen-oxide and small dust particles may threaten human health, together with ground-level ozone. PM10 is a considerable health hazard because heavy metals and organic compounds that are slow to degrade are bound to the surface of the particles. Sulphur dioxide (SO2), which used to be a major pollutant, no longer deteriorates air quality thanks to upgraded power plants and better heat energy sources. Regular maintenance of home heating equipment mitigates the risk of accidents and also lowers pollutant emission. The emission of volatile organic compounds (VOC) and ammonia (NH3) has grown slightly since 2000. VOC are primarily emitted by vehicles and certain industrial technologies, while ammonia pollution is mostly related to animal stocks and fertiliser usage.
Air pollution is declining slowly but steadily, as evidenced by the fact that the annual health hazard threshold for dust particles (40 μg/m3) was exceeded at seven measurement stations in 2005, four in 2007, and three in 2008; and no threshold excess has been reported since 2009. However, the daily threshold of 50 μg/m3 is often surpassed in several parts of Hungary, where higher values are measured more frequently than the acceptable 35 times a year. In still, cloudy winter periods, the pollution level occasionally reaches or exceeds the smog alert level introduced in 2008. Various stages of smog alert were announced several times in recent years, such as in February 2012 in 16 cities and towns across the country, including Budapest, where road traffic was limited for one day. (The other settlements were Százhalombatta, Esztergom, Tatabánya, Dunaújváros, Székesfehérvár, Várpalota, Veszprém, Ajka, Győr, Pécs, Szeged, Salgótarján, Putnok, Kazincbarcika and Sajószentpéter.)
Due to the country’s geographical location, pollutant concentration above the ground often increases between October and March; and strong sunlight in July and August boosts ground-level ozone generation.
International cooperation to protect air quality
The global fight against air pollution is governed by international treaties. Hungary is a party to all relevant international agreements, such as the Geneva Convention (and the connected protocols) on decreasing long-range trans-boundary air pollution, as well as the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants (POP). Changing air pollutant emission structures and the results of recent environmental health research have necessitated a review of previous air quality strategies. The European Union had accepted a thematic strategy aimed at combating air pollution in 2005; based on that, a new framework directive on ambient air quality was passed in 2008. That directive constitutes the basis for Hungary’s air cleanliness strategy objectives. If the goals stipulated in the Union’s thematic strategy are to be met by the agreed deadline of 2020, pollutant emissions in the EU must be cut (compared to year 2000) as follows: sulphur dioxide by 82%, nitrogen oxide by 60%, volatile organic compounds by 51%, ammonia by 27%, and primary PM 2.5 by 59%. Projections for Hungary indicate that reaching the emission targets concerning nitrogen-oxides and volatile organic compounds is questionable.