The air quality is officially “good”, 400ft above Paris in a balloon at rush hour. From that height you can see the ring road and many of the city’s 37 bridges blocked with traffic, the commuting trains coming in, and – on the first cold day of winter – water vapour rising from several power stations as thousands of central heating systems fire up .
A yellowish haze has formed on the horizon as air pressure builds, but the pollution from Paris’s transport, construction sites and power stations is minimal compared to that of Beijing or New Delhi at this time of year.
Paris measures its air pollution from 20 official sites, one of which is a large helium-filled balloon tethered to the ground with a small measuring device strapped to its base. At 9am at ground level, it registers 66,500 particles in a single litre of air; 400ft up, however, it reads 78,000. The most it has recorded is more than 6m in November 2013 when the city’s fumes were trapped for days in a particular weather pattern.
Then, says Jean-Baptiste Bernard, a senior scientist at France’s national research station ( LPC2E ) in Orleans, it was not possible to see the Eiffel Tower from just 400 yards away. But even 6m particles a litre is nothing compared to what developing countries regularly suffer. At this time of year, he says, Chinese and Indian cities are likely to be 12 times as bad. This week Beijing was put on red alert as pollution levels from thousands of cars and factories rose to their highest levels in more than a year.
“Pollution at altitude is worse than at ground level. It is dominated [in Paris] by very small carbon particles. It is worst in spring. Paris, like London gets two or three incidents a year when particulate pollution can spike. When it reached 6m per litre in 2013 it was the equivalent of smoking 6-8 cigarettes,” he said.
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