Paris is suffering under the ‘dirtiest air in a decade’

The winter pollution spike in Paris has been judged the worst in a decade as authorities continue to impose traffic restrictions on vehicles and make public transport free in a bid to tackle the dirty air above the city.

Paris is suffering under the 'dirtiest air in a decade'
Photo: AFP

Paris and its surrounding towns are suffering their worst and most prolonged winter pollution for at least ten years, the Airparif agency which measures air quality said on Wednesday.

The peak is due to the combination of emissions from vehicles and from domestic wood-fires as well as near windless conditions which means pollutants have not been dispersed, the agency said.

Traffic restrictions have been imposed on the capital since Tuesday morning meaning around half of drivers have to leave their cars at home each day or face a fine.

On Tuesday it was only motorists with even-numbered registration plates who could drive in Paris and 22 of the surrounding communes, while on Wednesday it was those with odd-numbered plates.

Authorities have also taken the step of making all public transport in the region free, so commuters can travel on the RER trains, the Metro, buses and tramways without needing to buy a ticket.

Air pollution is Paris is not a new problem and has regularly raised its head over the years.

In March 2014 authorities were forced to introduce similar traffic restrictions and make public transport free due to a pollution spike that lasted several days.

At the time environmental groups in the French capital said “enough was enough” and lodged a legal complaint forcing judges to investigate the high levels of pollution.

The claimed the dirty air was “putting people's lives in danger”. A report at the time said the air in Paris was like a room with eight smokers in it.

READ ALSO: IN PICTURES: Paris cloaked in smog as air pollution rises

The pollution in and around Paris is generally caused by the particles known as PM 10 that are emitted by vehicles as well as by chimneys of houses and factories. 

Such particles are too tiny to be filtered in the mouth and nostrils, and so embed themselves in the lungs more easily, and can have significant negative health effects.

According to the Airparif agency the three major sources of emissions in the greater Paris region for both air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions are: “the residential and tertiary sector, due to the heating, transportation and industry.

“These three sectors represent nearly 95 percent of CO2 emissions,” says the agency.

“These pollutants have widely documented effects,” Airparif says on its website.

“On human health (long and/or short time effects. Mainly cardiorespiratory problems), on the global and local environment (river acidification and eutrophication in some European regions, ozone impact on crop yields, acid rains) and on buildings (blackening and encrustation).”

Airparif have issued advice for how to avoid being exposed to the potential impact of the air pollution including not doing too much strenuous exercise. CLICK HERE for more tips on how to avoid being exposed.

Paris has taken steps to ease pollution including introducing a obligatory new system of stickers to highlight the most polluting vehicles.

Drives of those vehicles will have to leave them at home during future pollution spikes or face financial penalties. The system will be brought in in January.

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has also moved to ban diesel vehicles and the most polluting trucks from the city.

And in a bid to push cars out of the city she has closed the right bank of the river to traffic, although opponents say it has just moved the traffic jams elsewhere.

In December 2014 Paris was meant to impose a ban on log fires at home, but it was ditched at the eleventh hour by Environment Minister Segolene Royal.

“They made us believe it was more polluting than diesel,” Royal said at the time.

“Consumer groups have approached me about this prohibition and I am not in favour of it,” she added.

“It seems excessive. I’m all for encouraging people to become aware of pollution but I don’t want it to be due to one decision, that I find a little absurd.”

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Dirty air prompts free public transport in Paris

Public transportation in the capital will be "gratuit" from Friday morning to Sunday night, as officials battle against a spike in "dangerously" poor air quality. Velib' rental bikes and the car-sharing Autolib' scheme are also on the house.

Dirty air prompts free public transport in Paris
Public transport will be free this weekend in an effort to battle air pollution. Photo:Patrick Kovarik/AFP

Authorities are hoping free rides on Paris's massive public transport network this weekend will be enough to entice drivers to get out of their cars and ease the levels of air pollution plaguing the region.

The French capital has been under maximum pollution alert for several days, as have many other regions across the country.

Jean-Paul Huchon, head of the organisation that oversees transport in Paris and neighbouring areas, said on Thursday that transport would be free from Friday morning to Sunday evening due to the "significant risks to the health of residents." 

Overall, more than 30 departments in France were hit by maximum level pollution alerts, prompting Ecology Minister Philippe Martin to say air quality was "an emergency and a priority for the government". In parts of Normandy air pollution levels are already at a record high, according to one expert.

SEE ALSO: Paris pollution: What steps to take to breathe easy

In the cities of Caen and Rouen public transport will be free over the next three days. 

In the city of Reims in eastern France, public transport will be free on just Friday as is the case in Grenoble in the Alps, although it may be extended for the following days.

Authorities in the capital reacted by announcing that the Velib' bike sharing scheme and its car version Autolib' would be free from Thursday onwards.

Thursday was the third straight day that the Parisian region was under its maximum alert for air quality.

A lack of wind during the anticyclonic period and cold nights followed by balmy days triggered the poor quality air. Exhaust from cars, heating in buildings and factory emissions were also contributing to the problem.

In general, the smaller and lighter a particle is the longer it stays in the atmosphere and can remain suspended for weeks.

Particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter are also the most dangerous to health as they can pierce the lungs and the blood system. Environmental campaigners say the rise in air pollution is putting people's lives in danger because it can also lead to asthma, allergies and other respiratory ailments. They have lodged a legal complaint, forcing judges to investigate the causes of the pollution.

To see how bad pollution in Paris is, watch this speeded up video of the air around the Eiffel Tower.

Ecology without Borders (Écologie sans Frontière), Breath (Respire) and Unity for the Planet (Rassemblement pour la Planète) have lodged a legal complaint in Paris, on the grounds that pollution levels are endangering people’s lives.

“We are sick of this air pollution,” Nadir Saifi, spokesman of Ecology with Borders told France Info. As soon as the weather is good, and as soon as it's dry in winter you have these peaks in pollution and the emergency wards at hospitals fill up. Slogans and small demonstrations are no longer enough.”

Particles with a diameter of less than 10 microns were reported by regional air monitoring centres various parts of France, including Paris.

Authorities in the capital reacted by announcing that the Velib' bike sharing scheme and its car version Autolib' would be free from Thursday.

The levels of PM 10 – or small particles which easily penetrate the lungs – were reported at 50 micrograms per cubic metre in several areas such as Brittany, the Loire region and parts of wine-producing Burgundy.

According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution has become a major environmental health problem, as it increases risks of getting respiratory and heart diseases.

"The most recent data indicate that in 2010, 223,000 deaths from lung cancer worldwide resulted from air pollution," it said in an October report.

The organisation has since classified outdoor air pollution as "carcinogenic to humans".