Air pollution is the most important problem concerning the environment and public health in Turkey. While the first quarter of the 21st century is ending, our cities are witnessing a return of the air pollution problem similar to that of the beginning of the 1990’s. There are economic and social reasons for the return of the problem and it is becoming critical despite the increasing use of natural gas.
The Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning shares the elaborate results of the data gathering in our country with transparency on the website www.havakalitesi.gov.tr. The ministry is trying to do its part in assessing the situation.
The Air Quality Assessment and Management Regulations put in place by the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning reveal plans about what will be done in Turkey regarding air pollution.
These regulations determine the limit values concerning air quality and define the tasks of the provincial directorates.
The World Health Organization and the European Union clearly point out the necessity of measuring and evaluating pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, lead, benzene, carbon monoxide, arsenic, cadmium, nickel, benzo(a)pyrene and ozone.
The regulations in Turkey stipulate that these pollutants are to be measured and evaluated and the necessary measures will also be taken. This is the responsibility of the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning and the local authorities.
The limit values determined by Turkey are not compatible with the limit values defined by the European Union and the World Health Organization. Moreover, the regulations in Turkey do not contain any restrictions on the pollutant PM 2.5, which causes lung diseases.
The limit values in our country are nearly double the limit values determined by the EU. The aim is to bring these limit values down to those stipulated by the EU regulations by 2019. However, equalizing the limit values would not necessarily mean that the problem of air pollution would be solved. More details can be seen in the information given about the cities provided.
On the other hand, the average daily concentration value of the pollutant PM 10 is permitted to exceed the limit value only 35 times a year according to the EU and the World Health Organization. This means that urgent measures need to be taken if the limit value (50 µg/m3) is exceeded more than 35 days a year. In our country, however, this limit value is exceeded much more frequently and no precautions are taken.
There are air quality monitoring stations in all 81 cities in Turkey. There is more than one station in some cities. The Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning carries out important projects in this framework. The facts and information are shared with the public transparently.
However, not all of these stations measure the same pollutant parameters. For example, in the city of Düzce where pollution is on the highest level, only Particulate Matter 10 and sulphur dioxide (SO2) are measured. Other extremely important pollutants such as carbon monoxide, PM 2.5 (Particulate Matter), lead, cadmium, ozone and arsenic are not measured. Consequently, the facts obtained from these stations are insufficient. Due to the lack of information, the level of pollution is underestimated.
Moreover, many of the locations where the stations were built are far from being suitable for providing accurate data. For example, there are stations built far away from the traffic or the city centres, which are not apt locations to identify the sources of pollution.
Consequences of air pollution on public health
The consequences of air pollution on public health are clearly known. Both the reports of the Ministry of Health and the reports of the World Health Organisation directly state that air pollution causes skin disorders, hair loss, lung diseases and even cancer.
Speficically, particulates (PM 10 and PM 2.5) pose an important threat to public health as they contain heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium and carcinogenic chemicals. These poisonous and carcinogenic chemicals combine with moisture and turn into acid. Since soot, fly ash, petrol fumes and exhaust particulates from diesel-powered vehicles contain carcinogenic matter such as benzo(a)pyrene, breathing them for a long duration causes cancer.
PM 10 and PM 2.5 are the most important pollutants in Turkey and exceed the limit values.
Clean air action plans
According to the regulations, every Provincial Directorate of Environment and Urban Planning has to prepare a clean air plan. These plans must include fundamental data on the level and sources of pollution, the types of pollutant parameters and the names of polluted locations. Moreover, they must define the types of studies to be carried out in order to eliminate pollution. The plans must also state what the authorities and the citizens should do in case of a pollution emergency.
Although the clean air plans spanning the period between 2014 and 2019 were supposed to be prepared by the end of 2013 in all the cities, this was not the case. The plans were not prepared with a participatory approach in many of the cities, nor were they shared with the public.
In the case of Istanbul, the Provincial Directorate of Environment and Urban Planning submitted its action plan for the approval of the governorship on December 7, 2015. This plan was supposed to be finalized in 2013. Although the directorate stated that the plan would be made publicly available in the initial announcement, it is not possible to currently access the plan on the Internet. (Istanbul Clean Air Action Plan Submitted to Governorship Approval, https://www.csb.gov.tr/iller/istanbul/index.php?Sayfa=haberdetay&Id=21023, Accessed on 06.03.2016.)
Air pollution in Istanbul
In Istanbul, air pollution has reached the highest level of the recent years, particularly in the districts of Yenibosna, Kadıköy and Esenyurt. The rate of air pollution has increased due to the effects of transportation, the use of coal and urban transformation. The amount of dust, which is the source of the pollutant PM 10, is increasing since the environmental consequences of the urban transformation process are being ignored, and the necessary measures are not taken through upper-scale planning.
When we review the measurement results, geographical qualities and population data in Istanbul, we see that transportation and heating-related pollution are among the primary contributors to the pollution in the city. It is evident that Istanbul has an air pollution problem that is becoming chronic. Among the reasons for this are the gradual population growth, constructing more and more concrete buildings, destruction of the nature and forests in addition to the encouragement of the use of personal vehicles. Public transportation is still not used to the desired extent.
In Yenibosna, the limit value was exceeded for 181 days and measurements were not taken for 11 days.
In Esenyurt, the limit value was exceeded for 282 days. Measurements were not carried out for 57 days of the measurement period.
Figure 4: The PM 10 concentration levels in Istanbul/Esenyurt, the limit value determined by the EU and the measurement results. (The red line shows the EU limit value, the blue line shows the measurement results.)
Source: Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning, www. havaizleme.gov.tr.
Risk of inversion
Inversion is a phenomenon related with meteorological and geographical conditions that prevent polluted air from dissipating. An inversion due to a change in temperature in a different altitude took a toll of 4,000 lives in London in 1952, making 100,000 people ill. It is indeed a phenomenon which should be taken seriously.
The following web site shows the daily inversion risk map for Turkey:
The local authorities need to take measurements by evaluating this risk map and informing the public.
Urgent Precautions, Permanent Solutions
It is not possible to change the geographical qualities or location of cities. Therefore, it is necessary to come up with up-to-date, scientific solutions.
The fact that people were still using poor quality coal for home heating in 2015 has aggravated air pollution to an irremediable point. As three elections were held in a year’s time, the amount of coal distributed to households increased and the use of poor quality coal was encouraged.
The delivery of coal to households is claimed to be done with the aim to support poor citizens; however, it actually impairs the citizens’ quality of life while also putting a dependent and unsustainable heating policy into practice.
If low income families are to be supported, it should be done through a natural gas benefit. Otherwise, there will be masses of poor people struggling with lung diseases and cancer in the end.
The high concentration of the pollutant Particulate Matter 10 is sometimes attempted to be related to desert dust. However, it becomes apparent that this correlation is not a sound one when one analyzes the data from the stations that are built outside cities.
The urgent to-do list can be briefly summarized as follows:
The 2014-2019 Clean Air Plan, which is obligatory, should be prepared by every Provincial Directorate of Environment and Urban Planning with the participation of other institutions and NGO’s. The plans should be openly shared with the public and the solution-oriented resolutions in the plans should be put into practice assertively and decisively.
Inversion is a problem in the cities, occurring due to geographical location and prevents polluted air from dissipating. We need to learn to live with this problem. Therefore, it is urgent to stop zoning urban sites for construction in order to prevent erecting buildings in front of air corridors. If we talk about urban transformation, then we should be talking of one which is focused on solving the problem of air pollution.
A greater number of pollutant parameters should be measured at measurement points and measurement devices should be improved.
Rather than encouraging the use of coal, citizens should be given financial aid to use natural gas.
Public transportation should be made dominant over other options and the entry of vehicles into city centres should be limited. Public transportation should become fast and comfortable in all the cities.
Children, pregnant women, the elderly and the ill should not be on the streets during the hours when air pollution is intense. The governorships should publish up-to-date daily announcements on their web sites about this issue. (Since the phenomenon of inversion is occurs more in the evening and the morning, the rate of pollution increases significantly after 18.00.)
Provincial Directorates of Health should track and announce the number of hospital entries related to respiratory tract infections and lung diseases.
Green belts should be created between settlements and industrial zones. During the process of urban planning, some important factors should be taken into account, such as the predominant wind direction in the city and the possible wind transport of pollutants from neighbouring cities.
Public training activities can be organized with the aim of reducing emissions from coal burning homes by encouraging people to use the right type of firing systems. Considering that the use of insulation techniques in homes will reduce the amount of fuel burnt and the emission level by 50%, it would be very effective to encourage and support the public to conform to the regulations prepared on this topic.
There should be more inspections to control whether poor-quality coal is burnt for heating. Coal that is below the quality standards should be banned entry to the city.
In order to reduce traffic-related emissions, green waves and the use of intelligent signalling systems can be implemented.
The measurement results announced by the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning, and the Inversion Risk Map prepared by the General Directorate of Turkish State Meteorological Service should be jointly evaluated by the governorships and municipalities. The solutions should be created on the basis of this data and the public should be informed regularly.
We should not forget that air pollution will eventually pollute the soil and natural areas through rainfall. Therefore, we should not ignore the fact that air pollution is also one of the sources of the pollution affecting the soil and farm lands.
Since living a healthy, comfortable and peaceful life is a fundamental public need, it should be given priority in the national budget.
PM 10: Particulate matter smaller than 10 micrograms per cubic metre.
PM 2.5: Particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrograms per cubic metre.