Concern about poor air quality has risen in line with the rise in PMs

The last Bulgarian winter was so savage that the prospect of a repeat sent me searching for a knockout drug that would render me comatose until March 1st. There’s a lot to be said, I concluded, for winter hibernation. Wake me up when it’s time to don the Martenitsi!

This time last year I recall people literally running into the metro. Not only did daytime highs not get above about minus 12 in the capital, Sofia, but an added wind chill made it seem even more unbearable.

Of course, the most macho Bulgarian men wouldn’t admit it. I remember seeing one Bulgarian guy standing at the bus stop on this aforementioned day – looking very nonchalant in a casual jacket. He didn’t appear to be moving at all. I actually wondered if he was frozen to the spot – kind of like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. But for the rest of us – it was a case of ‘only go out if you have to’.

This winter has been quite mild by comparison so far. And there was me – my suitcase packed, waiting to evacuate to St Barts in the Caribbean. At least that became a fantasy!! If only on the laptop …
But, thanks to a relatively new website, airsofia.info, we have become aware of something very different – the dreadful air quality in much of Sofia. (And, of course, throughout in Bulgaria in general although my reference point here is Sofia.)

The site monitors air quality and finds that levels of PM 2,5 and PM 10 have often exceeded established safety levels, leading to various symptoms. In your writer’s case these symptoms include a persistent hacking cough and occasional bouts of breathlessness, listlessness and . . . er, I want to get out of here-ness.

Sofia is in a valley, hemmed in by the mountains, leading to a cloud of pollution hanging over the city. The result is that pollution levels recently have been far too high, but – and this is a subtext ignored by some – there are wide variations across the city as the clean air map shows. The southern part of Sofia is more likely to have better air quality. The centre and residential parts of the northwest – around Lyulin and Nadezhda and Krasna Polyana – fare worse. A (perhaps politically incorrect) reason could be that these are areas densely populated with Roma ghettoes. Perhaps out of necessity they burn car tyres, plastic rubbish and other toxic materials for heating.

Mayor Yordanka Fandakova has urged people to use public transport rather than get into their cars. She has also announced measures to clean the major boulevards. Let’s hope all this isn’t a case of too little, too late.

I admit to being relatively ignorant about the dangers of air pollution unto fairly recently. I used to pooh pooh those who returned from places like Beijing claiming they couldn’t breathe. Now I know it’s serious. I mean life-threatening serious.