Friday 23 August 2019

The air that we breathe

This article first appeared in Malta Today

I recently saw a sight I never thought I would see: a Maltese woman wearing a face mask while sweeping outside her own front door on a busy main road.  

Then I spotted a few cyclists who were also wearing a mask.

These sightings pretty much tallied with a recent report carried on Lovin’ Malta which stated that: “It’s official. Malta’s air quality is pretty terrible. Worse than some of the busiest cities in Europe. In fact, worse than all of them except four. Malta’s air quality compared to Moscow, Malaga and Ankara, according to the Euronews weather forecast. Euronews includes an Air Quality Index in its weather forecasts, thanks to information submitted by Copernicus, an atmosphere monitoring service (CAMS). The index rates air quality from 1 (very good) to 5 (very poor). Today’s forecast rates Malta’s air quality as 4 (poor), the lowest score in Europe, and the same score obtained by Moscow (Russia), Malaga (Spain) and Ankara (Turkey).”

This was followed by the inevitable and predictable official reaction to this news by the Environment and Resources Authority which refuted this report:  “A ‘mild dust event’ from the Sahara was behind the recent poor rating of Malta’s air quality, the Environment Resources Authority has said. The dust event, which started on Monday morning, led to an elevated amount of particulate matter throughout the country. High levels were also registered at the Għarb monitoring station in Gozo, which was unusual for the site. The dust cloud will die down during the coming days but will further increase in intensity during the weekend.  “Within large cities, the values provided by CAMS are representative of the “urban background” concentrations, corresponding to areas in the city that are not directly affected by local sources,” ERA said.”

In the same article, however, ERA also admitted that, “the main source of air pollution in Malta is road traffic”.

That the skies have been very murky over the last few days is true.  On one particular day, I noticed there was absolutely no horizon and sea and sky had merged into one hazy, heavy blur of nothingness – the kind of eerie atmospheric feeling we usually get before being hit by a summer storm. 

But leaving climatic conditions aside, one would have to be pretty deep in denial to claim that a combination of constant traffic, new cars being added on the road every day, nationwide construction dust and just sheer environmental negligence are not contributing to the poor air quality.  It’s like those people who insist, “It’s not my fault I am overweight, I don’t eat much, I’m just big-boned”, when the reality is that they are stuffing their face non-stop from dawn till dusk.  Wouldn’t it just be more honest and straightforward to confess: “yes, I love my food, I hate exercise and it obviously shows”?  

Similarly, when it comes to how we have poisoned our own air, it’s about time we come clean that “yes, we love our cars, we hate walking, public transport or car pooling, and it obviously shows.”

It’s pretty simply really: one thing leads to another and trying to pretend otherwise is fooling no one, especially since the air that we breathe is something we can all gauge for ourselves.  How can we otherwise explain that people who have never suffered from their sinus before in their lives have suddenly developed sinus problems?  And, if one needs any further proof, a short hop-over to nearby Sicily, will provide it.  Nasal passages immediately cleared up as we meandered our way through the unspoilt Sicilian countryside, and looked wistfully and enviously like forlorn children at miles and miles of trees and greenery.  

It was not just our noses and lungs which said thank you, even our eyes and minds were given a much needed respite because sometimes we do not realise just how disturbing and stressful it is to see rows of cranes, ravenous bulldozers crushing their way through neighbourhoods and gaping holes and gashes ripping into agricultural land on a daily basis. It is a constant assault on the senses and one’s emotional wellbeing, only you do not realise just how much it has deeply affected you until you are away from it.   I compare it to a nagging, extremely painful toothache which has kept you up all night, until suddenly and magically the pain is gone and welcome relief rushes through you, and you wonder how you managed to withstand the sheer agony.  Or to a mind-numbing relentless loud noise which pervades every room of your home, and from which you cannot escape, until it abruptly stops and the blissful quiet almost makes you want to weep with gratitude. 

It has often occurred to me that thank God we are a small island surrounded by many nautical miles of open sea, because if we were on the mainland the problem would be a hundred times worse. At the very least we can make our way to the edges of our rocky shores and look outwards, to rest our inner beings and calm our souls, reassuring ourselves that at least we have this to provide us with that intangible feeling of inexplicable joy.  And at least here, as we turn our backs on the chaotic mayhem on the island and gaze in another direction, at least for now here, we can breathe. 

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