POLLUTION WATCH – Gibraltar’s inconvenient truth

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Gibraltar has consistently been found in breach of the European Union annual mean limits for nitrogen oxide for over a decade, as well as the World Health Organisation limits for PM10 (particulate matter). PollutionWatch Gibraltar is a platform on Facebook that intends on increasing public awareness of our poor air quality – “I set the page up two years ago after feeling terribly frustrated and impotent as to the state of our air quality for many years…” Marillis Azzopardi states; “The situation was getting worse and not improving with regards to data availability and reliability”.

“One of my main reasons for starting this group has to do with data. Data is so important in order to be able to quantify the effects of air pollution. If we want to conduct an epidemiological or any other type of study that sets out to look at health outcomes, we need lots of data. Not just air pollution though. We need plenty of health related statistics and in a way that researchers will be able to access easily. Without statistics, we have little to go on. Both to provide data for studies but in order to ascertain the level of the problem and how to target it. The current monitoring system is very inadequate in this respect… We don’t have real time PM2.5 monitoring and that is shocking, especially in the light of new studies that link PM2.5 with mortality and increased risk of heart disease and stroke”.

This all seems very alarming, though perhaps not a huge shock in light of the bunkering at the bay, motor vehicle usage in Gibraltar, and the infamous Franco-era refinery in the Campamento area. I wondered how much responsibility, if any, the Spainsh government had taken regarding air pollution: “PM2.5 in some monitoring stations across the Bay (particularly Campamento and San Roque region) were found to be very elevated. In the recent past, the Spanish government has stopped publishing PM2.5 data and that also gives great rise for concern. The ESG had been calling for PM2.5 monitoring in the western part of Gib for years. It’s a priority so that we can see if this transboundary pollution is affecting our population. It frustrates me to see Dr Cortes say he will call for an epidemiological study but then fails to improve the database via monitoring so that in years to come, researchers may have material to draw upon”.

The frustration that PollutionWatch express seems like a justified one. Indeed, it is surprising that the findings have not caused a more widespread uproar. “The public response has been a bit disappointing (although lately it’s picked up a bit) but not unexpected. It pretty much happens the world over. One reason is because pollution is mostly an invisible problem and if people can’t see and experience the effects, they’re less likely to even be aware that there is an issue. Overt respiratory symptoms are easy to link with air quality, especially if you can smell that the air is not good.

“However, with things like heart disease, strokes, birth defects, cancer and dementia, people don’t realise that there is also a link unless they’re quite well-informed. Another reason may be because people feel powerless to do anything about it. So they may see no point in worrying and focusing on something over which they feel they have no control”.

The latter concern is a vital point and one that speaks volumes. If there is a feeling of powerlessness over such a critical issue for living generations and those to come, how is there any hope of progress? There must be a form of public empowerment that can provoke a change in attitude, especially with this sort of challenge. The cost of letting the situation get worse is infinitely higher than the cost of challenging the responsible authorities. This is one of the several admirable features of the PollutionWatch initiative. “We are living at a time when we have a wide variety of resources with which to monitor our environment. It is also a time when scientific research is churning out lots of data that provides evidence for further tightening of regulation and lowering of safety thresholds. In Gibraltar though, not only is the government not taking advantage of monitoring to assess the levels of the problems, it is also allowing the population to be exposed to illegal levels of pollutants for long periods of time, knowing that chronic exposure causes ill-health”.

Equally, the almost complete absence of high-profile media attention for the research being done by this initiative is discouraging. Motivating the public to act on environmental issues is particularly difficult, given that it may entail sacrifices (such as recycling, opting to walk to a destination as opposed to driving and so on) to a larger and less instantly gratifying cause (saving planet Earth from a premature death). Societal ‘authorities’ like the media and government must play their roles in this discourse. “People generally don’t want to rock the boat in Gibraltar because of vested interests, so the media and the government just pretend it’s not happening. There is a huge issue with a lack of transparency and accountability. The previous government was much more transparent and accountable in their environmental dealings. They carried out more studies and made them available for the public to access. Admittedly, this was triggered by EU regulation but regardless of how it was arrived at, the net result was studies conducted in order to have data that informs policy. With this one, this has slowed to a mere trickle of information that is available to the public”.

For Gibraltar, air pollution appears to be our inconvenient truth: “We need policies put in place that don’t just look after the economic interests of businesses but also protect the people and the environment from harmful pollution and destruction to our ecosystems arising from the practices of some of these businesses… It is not right that businesses should make a profit at the cost of people’s health. If they wish to conduct a business that’s a health risk, then they should be made to apply mitigating technologies in order to continue. If not, the burden is not just on the family that suffers the loss but it’s also a burden and drain on our health resources. So the economic benefit is more for businesses than to government, as the latter has to pay for the resulting burden of ill-health and mortality”.