An effective fight with smog—cleaner air only thanks to the comprehensive modernization of detached houses

The heating season is coming to an end. This is good news for those who are looking forward to the sunny spring and hot summer, but also for those who want to finally breathe cleaner air. Over the past months, reports of the permissible levels of particulate matter in the air being exceeded have been appearing across the country. So-called smog alarms were being raised, and schools and kindergartens were given guidelines not to take children for walks.

For a moment we can breathe easy again, but in a few months another heating season will start and the problem of smog will return. That is why it is important to take effective actions that will make smog become less and less burdensome every year.

What is smog?

In analysing air pollution in Poland, we should pay attention to three main pollutants: PM 10 and PM 2.5 particles, and benzo(α)pyrene. PM10 dusts (particles 10 microns or less in diameter) are mostly stopped in the nose, but smaller ones can reach the throat and even the trachea. PM 2.5 particles (particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less) can penetrate bronchi and bronchioles. Meanwhile, the smallest particles, less than 1 micrometer in diameter, reach the alveoli, from which they can penetrate into the bloodstream. Benzo(a)pyrene is one of the most toxic components of smog. It builds up in the body and can cause cancer, impair fertility and harm the baby in the mother’s womb.

Health impact

Previous studies have demonstrated the real impact of particulate matter on the development of respiratory tracts in infants born to mothers exposed to air pollution during pregnancy. Observations in Krakow showed that the lungs of such children show significantly lower total expiratory volume values (by about 100 ml), and these children are significantly more likely to be exposed to respiratory infections than those in the control group. Exposure to air pollution during the prenatal period may also lead to deficits in concentration and attention, as well as hyperactivity. The results of studies of leading foreign centres were confirmed in Krakow, where it was shown that in tests the children of more vulnerable mothers displayed IQ 3.8 points lower than the IQ of children of less exposed mothers. In addition, air pollution has been identified as one of the factors that may affect the risk of intrauterine fetal death, prematurity, and low birth weight of newborns.

How to fight smog?

In response to low air quality issues in Poland and the heat source exchange programmes proposed by some authorities, Dr Krzysztof M. Księżopolski from the Institute for Security, Energy and Climate Studies (ISECS) has prepared the “Smog-Fighting Strategy”. The document is a compendium of knowledge about the causes and effects of smog and presents the results of a study involving the simulation of comprehensive modernization of detached houses. This study shows the reduction of energy consumption and thus the reduction of benzo(a)pyrene, PM2.5, and PM10 particles emissions, which can be achieved by increasing the energy standard of detached houses in Poland.

The report clearly indicates that the main culprits are single family homes and their low energy standard. The calculations shown in the report show that the replacement of the heat source will not, in itself, solve the smog issue and, in some cases, may even contribute to an increase in heating costs, for example as a result of overdimensioning the new heating device. In order to avoid this, it is important to carry out a comprehensive modernization of buildings, consisting of measures such as the insulation of the outer walls, the replacement of windows and the heating system. Only after they are completed, a new heat source should be invested in.

“Air quality in Poland is one of the lowest in the European Union, and the level of pollution exceeds World Health Organization’s (WHO) standards, negatively affecting health and quality of life,” writes the report’s author, Dr Krzysztof M. Księżopolski. This fact has already been confirmed in 2014 by the Supreme Audit Office, which indicated that in 2010-2013 PM10 particles exceeded safety levels in more than 75% of the tested zones in the country, and the highly toxic benzo(a)pyrene exceeded them in about 90% of the tested areas. According to NIK (Supreme Audit Office), the cause of this situation was the ineffectiveness of existing air protection measures. What is the strategy proposed by the Institute for Security, Energy and Climate Studies?

“Taking into account the number of recorded levels of air pollution exceeding the safety standards in Poland, it is necessary to undertake urgent actions to reduce the phenomenon of smog. The main source of air pollution is individual heating in households, and its share in domestic emissions is 32% for total suspended particles (TSP), 78% for benzopyrene, 40% for PM10, and 41% for PM2.5. When analyzing the source of the problem, the strategy’s axis should be to reduce emissions from single-family buildings, which account for as much as 90% of all residential buildings in Poland. Our research shows that thanks to comprehensive investments that reduce the heat demand in detached houses, benzo(a)pyrene emissions can be reduced by 44%, PM2.5 emissions by 22%, and PM10 emissions by 23% nationwide, thus significantly reducing the phenomenon of smog”—writes the report’s author.

An effective smog-fighting strategy, according to ISECS, should primarily include:

1. A comprehensive modernization of single-family houses in rural areas bordering towns including the isolation of outer walls, replacement of windows, and modernization and optimization of the heating system.

2. The concentration of efforts on appropriate buildings’ age groups. Thanks to comprehensive modernization, energy consumption can be reduced on average by 57% in the entire sector of single family buildings and in the oldest building segment—by up to 76%.

3. The appropriate sequence of actions. Replacement of heat sources should be carried out in buildings that have already undergone comprehensive modernization, otherwise, they can be overdimensioned—up to 80% in individual cases.

4. Local development conditions and the voice of local government and local communities in the discussion and decision-making process.

“Fighting the smog requires long-term actions. At the same time, air quality is our common national good. That is why we recommend that fighting smog should become one of the key elements of Poland’s development policy”—concludes Dr Krzysztof M. Księżopolski.