According to the newspaper Kathimerini, a set of emergency measures were announced by the government on Thursday to combat smog from fireplaces in a number of Greek cities, which reached critical levels over the past few days and poses a serious threat to public health.
The combination of unfavorable weather conditions and the large number of people burning wood to stay warm because it is the cheapest or only form of heating they have, has created severe air pollution over Athens, Thessaloniki and a number of other cities. Health warnings from numerous experts prompted the government to issue a new set of guidelines, which were published in the Government Gazette yesterday. These will be enforced on days when the concentration of particulate matter suspended in the air exceeds 150 micrograms per cubic meter.
Among the government’s recommendations are that nursery, primary and secondary schools should be closed, that homeowners should stop burning wood and that oil or gas-fired central heating systems should have their thermostats set to 18 Celsius. The government has also warned people against spending prolonged periods outdoors in such conditions.
Beyond recommendations, the government is also introducing certain bans during days when air pollution is highest. For example, heating systems in most public buildings will be switched off, industrial activity will be reduced by 30 percent, diesel-powered cars and trucks will not be permitted in the affected areas, school buses will be barred from use and taxis will have to adopt the odd/even license plate system used in central Athens.
The decision, signed by the ministers of finance, interior development, administrative reform, health, environment, transport, public order and merchant marine, also commits the government to offering free electricity to needy households for twice the number of days that the restrictive measures are in place.
The smog problem has largely arisen due to the high cost of heating oil, which most Greek households used until last year. But since 2012, when the tax on heating oil was raised to the same as that on vehicle fuel to “combat smuggling,” use of the fuel has dropped by around 70 percent. Greeks have sought out cheaper alternatives instead.
Earlier this week, 41 New Democracy MPs, about a third of the party’s total lawmakers tabled a question in Parliament about the possibility of dropping the tax on heating oil.