Air pollution in the south of Malta has been more than 20 times above safe levels for the last week, according to European Environment Agency data. Experts who spoke to the Times of Malta, however, could not pinpoint an immediate cause for the apparently worsening conditions and warned that the data may be misleading.
Readings from the Żejtun air monitoring station – retrieved from the European Air Quality Index – show concentrations of fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, averaging around 500 micrograms per cubic metre since at least March 4.
According to World Health Organisation guidelines, 25 micrograms is the limit for healthy exposure over a 24-hour period.
Fine particulate matter has a major impact on human health, according to the EEA, aggravating heart and lung disease and posing a serious threat to respiratory health for the general population.
The US Environmental Protection Agency defines anything above 250 micrograms as “hazardous” and recommends that everyone should avoid outdoor exertion, while those with respiratory or heart disease, as well as the elderly and children, should remain indoors.
The data should set alarm bells ringing
Martin Balzan, a respiratory health expert, told the Times of Malta PM2.5 readings at the Żejtun station were typically low due to the gas-fired power station and prevailing winds in the area.
He noted that the cause of the spike was unlikely to be traffic, as nitrogen dioxide levels had not increased, and cautioned that the readings could be an error or the result of an extremely localised event, such as a traffic detour or fireplace output close to the monitoring station’s sensors.
Engineer Arthur Ciantar, who has studied air quality in the area, said he could not recall such high levels of fine particulate matter before. Increases, he said, were most often caused by traffic, highlighting marine traffic and trans-boundary pollution as other contributing factors.
He added that, if accurate, the data should set alarm bells ringing and highlight the consequences of the region’s significant increase in traffic density.
A European Environment Agency report published last October found that Malta had the fourth worst levels of particulate matter in the EU – 50 micrograms per cubic metre, right at the European daily limit.
The report also found air pollution was responsible for 250 premature deaths in Malta in 2014.
A 2016 study by Dr Balzan and Michael Pace Bardon from the Department of Medicine at Mater Dei found pedestrians and cyclists in Fgura were exposed to three or four times more black carbon on the streets than indoors.
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