Bulgaria is officially known as the Republic of Bulgaria and is located in Southeast Europe. It shares borders with five other countries and has a Black Sea coastline. In 2019 it had an estimated population of almost 7 million people. Strangely, its population is dwindling as it has shrunk by 2 million since 1988. In early 2021, Bulgaria was experiencing “Moderate” air quality with a US AQI index figure of 79. This is in accordance with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO). The concentration of PM2.5 was more than twice the target level of 10 µg/m³.
In 2019 it held the accolade of being ranked the 24th dirtiest country in the world, with an annual average figure of 25.49 µg/m³ which was marginally better than the previous year when the average figure was 25.82 µg/m³. A “Moderate” level of air pollutions records levels of between 12.1 and 35.4 µg/m³.
The air in Bulgaria is among the most polluted in Europe. Every year Bulgarian cities rank among the leading places with the most polluted air in Europe. Although air quality has improved in recent decades, it still remains inferior by European and global standards. Among the main causes of air pollutants in Bulgaria are coal-fired power plants with their production of electricity and heat, household combustion of solid fuels, transportation and industrial processes.
Every winter a thick grey smog covers the country. Smoky chimneys, emitting smoke in every shade of grey and black, are a common sight. A large part of the country's population is still burning solid fuel which is mostly low-quality coal which produces a lot of smoke and ash. The stoves used are inefficient and the combustion of solid fuels is accompanied by the release of harmful elements such as solid dust particles PM2.5 and PM10, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and others. Domestic heating is a major source of fine particulate matter PM in the atmosphere.
These fine dust particles are microscopic solids or liquids that accumulate in the atmosphere. The most common PMs are 10 micrometres in diameter or PM10. They are coarser and are released during combustion, vehicle emissions and various production processes. Smaller particles with a size of 2.5 micrometres in diameter or PM2.5 are toxic organic compounds and heavy metals. They are also more dangerous to the health of the population. In 2014 alone, over 51 per cent of all PM10 emissions and 85 per cent of PM2.5 emissions were released from solid fuel combustion in domestic situations.
Combustion of coal for electricity and heat production in thermal power stations are also among the main sources of emissions that degrade air quality. Coal, which is burned in thermal power plants, is of poor quality with a low calorific value and high in ash and sulphur. Therefore, Bulgarian installations use a larger amount of poor quality fuel, which in turn leads to the release of large amounts of harmful substances such as sulphur dioxide and ash.
In 2014, thermal power plants were the main sources of emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides (NOx) which accounted for 73 per cent and 30 per cent of all emissions, respectively.
Among the main sources of pollution in Bulgaria is domestic heating of solid fuels such as coal and wood, combustion of coal for the production of electricity and heat from thermal power stations, road transport, industry, construction and repair activities. The distribution of the various sources of pollution varies in different areas. For example, cities near coal-fired power plants have higher levels of sulphur dioxide (SO2) than places that are further away from industrial centres.
In addition to air pollution and irreparable damage to the environment such as water pollution, the destruction of fertile land and human health, coal-burning also causes climate change. Coal-fired power stations are also a source of a third of the world's carbon dioxide (CO2) as a result of human activity. And while the coal industry does not bear the cost of the damage it does, people and the planet are paying a heavy price.
The good news is that millions of people around the world are pushing for ambitious solutions and changes. The energy revolution is gaining momentum. Individuals, communities, cities and local authorities are changing laws, transforming the cities in which they live, fitting their own renewable energy installations in their homes and businesses. It was they who installed the first wind turbines in Europe, uniting in renewable energy communities. They make their own renewable energy projects and storage systems, including the insulation of homes and buildings. They demonstrate that many of the solutions to air pollution are also solutions to tackle the effects of climate change caused by human activity.
The first step in cleaning the air is to accurately and continuously measure the pollution. Once the problem is measured, it can be analysed to make it easier to find effective solutions. In the last two years, a large investment was made in order to improve the air information systems, primarily at the national level and in Sofia. In reality, however, citizens still do not have access to easily processed and adequate information. What was presented to them were only vague pictures. The smallest and most dangerous dust particles were not measured in the capital at all, and the stations that Sofia bought under a European project are of controversial quality and doubtful use.
In 2019, one of the cities with the dirtiest monitored air was the capital city of Sofia. Figures showed the current state of the air in Sofia by neighbourhood, which revealed the highest values of fine dust particles PM2.5 in the northern and north-western parts of the city. They are many times above the standard of 50 micrograms per 1 cubic meter.
Air of comparatively poor quality was also found in Vidin and in the Plovdiv district of Trakia. This is where the industrial zone is and has repeatedly been ranked as the dirtiest place since 2015. Records show that in 2017, one-third of the year was subject to much-polluted air. In the last five years, however, things are showing slight signs of improvement with 531 days of pollution in the last 5 years.
The main cause of pollution is poor control of coal-fired power stations, a study identified 423 "hot spots" of pollution around the world, and The Mari basin near Stara Zagora was in the top 50.
On the whole, the air quality remains fairly constant throughout the year with an annual average figure in the 20s, which classifies it as “Moderate”. In some areas, the quality is worse during the colder first months of the year, but this is due to local topography and therefore cannot be generalised. The seasons which are cold enough for households to require heat are likely to be the worst due to the emissions given off by the solid fuel stoves. The coal used is very often cheap and of a very poor quality. It produces a lot of smoke when burned and leaves a lot of ash as a residue. On average, the heating season lasts for approximately 160 days. For around 70 of those days, the air quality was far in excess of the permissible levels.
Temperature inversion also plays a part because it traps the polluted air at ground level because of the difference in air temperature during the colder months.
Air pollution is not always a problem we see, but the consequences for our health are serious. Prolonged deterioration of air quality can also lead to consequences such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, diseases related to the nervous and reproductive systems.
Difficulty in breathing, asthma, respiratory irritation and burning eyes are just a significant part of the health damage that burning coal causes. When exposure to these pollutants is systemic and in large quantities, then more serious diseases of the cardiovascular, respiratory, nervous and reproductive systems can develop.
Fine dust particles are especially harmful to health because they penetrate the lungs very easily because of their microscopic size. Although the number of deaths from air pollution has been steadily declining over the past few decades, harmful levels remain high. It is claimed that 90 per cent of Europeans still breathe dirty air and that air pollution poses the greatest danger to human health.
Not everywhere in Europe do people breathe in the same quality of air. Pollution is significantly higher in Central and Eastern Europe than in other areas. In first place in the ranking of countries with the most polluted air is Bulgaria, where experts find the most deaths as a result of air pollution. The main reason for this, according to experts, is the high level of fine dust particles caused by solid fuel stoves.
Poland, previously hosted a climate conference, ranks second in Europe in terms of air pollution. Experts estimate that the dirty air there kills about 45,000 people each year. According to the WHO, 33 of the 50 cities with the dirtiest air in Europe are located in Poland. The host city of the climate conference was Katowice is one of them. The main causes of smog in Poland are coal and wood heating systems, both domestic and industrial. But Poland is redressing the situation by starting to replace its old, dirty heating systems.
Germany is somewhere in the middle of this ranking. Generally, the country manages to comply with the annual limits for air pollution regarding fine particles. In large cities, however, the air is significantly worse. In Stuttgart, for example, 64.40 micrograms of fine particles per cubic meter of air were measured: the permissible upper limit being 50 micrograms. Norway is the only country in the EU where the air is as clean as the target figure recommended by the WHO, and its parameters are stricter than those of the EU. Norway's "green strategy" to promote clean vehicles is clearly successful.
In a number of countries, the topic of air pollution is becoming increasingly important. People are starting to rethink their behaviour and their actions. EU pressure is also helping to change thinking. The Polish government, for example, has banned the sale of heating systems that do not meet emission standards. To this end, Warsaw is allocating a total of 25 billion euros over a period of ten years, so that even poorer citizens can replace their old heating systems with new ones. Some local authorities go even further. Krakow, for example, will become the first city in Poland to completely ban solid fuel heating.
Since 2013, the EU package has contributed to the gradual improvement of air quality across Europe. The goal is to significantly improve this quality by 2030. Eventually, all parties should comply with the requirements. However, many of them do not. In May, the EC filed complaints and threatened legal action against Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Hungary and Romania over their repeated limits of poor quality air.
In countries such as Bulgaria, the problems have accumulated over the years and there are no adequate measures to clean the air immediately.
The best way to make sure we are not breathing dirty air is to make our transport system, as well as the systems that provide electricity and heat, cleaner by replacing the burning of fossil fuels with energy from renewable sources.
Switch to using renewable energy sources for heating and for general electricity needs, and replace your old stove with a new one with low emissions. Do not use low-quality solid fuel for heating, but only clean, certified fuels.
It is recommended to combine more efficient heating systems with home renovations. This will reduce the energy used and the corresponding harmful emissions into the air associated with its production.