Bosnian towns like Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica, Lukavac and Kakanj are suffering from serious problems with air pollution, experts from the Federal Hydro-Meteorological Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina [FHMZBiH] told BIRN.
“Sarajevo is definitely one of the most polluted cities in Europe when it comes to air pollution,” said Enis Omercic, an air-quality expert for the FHMZBiH.
“The air pollution is even bigger in industrial cities like Tuzla and Zenica,” Omercic added.
The airborne concentration of sulphur dioxide, a gas considered dangerous to human health, can sometimes exceed 1,000 microgrammes per cubic metre, according to official figures provided by the FHMZBiH.
A concentration of 500 microgrammes per cubic metre is considered risky enough to raise a warning, according to the FHMZBiH.
A high level of air pollution is at the root of serious medical conditions like lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, according to the World Health Organisation.
“The situation is very critical,” Lejla Hatibovic, a specialist working for the Institute for Public Health of Sarajevo Canton, told BIRN.
Pollution from cars and the burning of coal, which is still used in industrial power plants and in many houses, are major contributors to the problem.
“Sarajevo used to be the most polluted city in Yugoslavia because people were burning coal to warm their houses,” said Hatibovic.
“In the 1970s, the authorities decided to increase the use of gas heating, which helped a lot in reducing the air pollution. Unfortunately, after the war and with the worsening of the economic situation in Bosnia, a lot of people are going back to coal, as it’s cheaper than gas,” she said.
Despite the warnings, the Bosnian authorities haven’t taken any concrete measures to lower the pollution in the country.
On the contrary, they are planning to increase the number of active coal power plants by building a new one in Stanari, a town in central Bosnia, and by expanding the already existing plants in Tuzla.
“The authorities in Bosnia are doing too little, and too late, to reduce the impact of pollution,” Samir Lemes, the President of Ekoforum, an environmental NGO based in Zenica, told BIRN.
Back in September, Ekoforum decided to launch criminal charges against the local administration in Zenica, together with Arcelor-Mittal, which owns the local steel factory, for not reducing the air pollution in the city.
“It’s the first charge for environmental crimes in our country,” Lemes told, adding that however the trial “will probably take a lot of time”.
Despite general agreement that the high level of air pollution could seriously affect the health of Bosnian citizens, specialists still argue that the lack of official data about cancer cases in the country makes it less easy to establish if the increase in pollution has directly increased the number of deaths from cancer.
“So far, there is no concrete study in the country which could show any connection between the level of powders in the atmosphere and the increase in cancers in Bosnia,” Semir Beslija, head of the oncology clinic of Sarajevo, told BIRN.
Even though hard data on cancer cases doesn’t exist, experts are warning that air pollution in Bosnia and Herzegovina is damaging the health of its citizens.
“In past years, cases of chronic respiratory diseases have constantly increased, which is a clear sign of the impact of air pollution on the population,” Aida Velic, a doctor from the Institute of Public Health of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, told BIRN.
Velic said that her institute has been asking for years to conduct a more precise analysis at the national level, but has not been given the green light.
“We know for sure that air pollution is a carcinogenic factor, and we know that lung cancer is the most common cancer among Bosnian men. However, in the current situation we cannot tell if this might depend on other factors as well,” she said.