Rome, July 2019. The ZTL gate in Via del Corso (Angelo Carconi/Ansa)
Rome, July 2019. The ZTL gate in Via del Corso (Angelo Carconi/Ansa)

Cars and pollution: the absurd battle between limits and health

In major cities such as Rome and Milan, there are those who oppose the traffic restrictions needed to reduce smog levels. Italy has already been condemned by the European Court of Justice, but for some, health does not seem to be a priority

Ylenia Sina

Ylenia SinaGiornalista

11 settembre 2023

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In September, ithe Vice-President of the Council of Ministers, Matteo Salvini, spoke out against the measure taken in Milan by the administration of Mayor Giuseppe Sala. In Rome, on the other hand, the controversy erupted in April with the start of the installation of the 51 fines gates. The restrictions on the circulation of the most polluting cars and the controversy that ensued illustrate all the difficulties of the ecological transition.

What seems to have disappeared from the debate, however, is the reason for the measure: to improve air quality, to ensure compliance with the legal parameters that Italy has been exceeding for many years and that will lead to a condemnation by the European Court of Justice in 2022, and to prepare for compliance with the stricter regulations that will come into force in 2030.

Protests in Rome

The greatest discontent is in Rome, where the number of vehicles affected is greater and the size of the city makes the use of public transport much more disadvantageous than in other cities. In the capital, too, the protests are mainly supported by right-wing parties: a petition launched by city councillor Fabrizio Santori (Lega) has gathered more than 85,000 signatures, and on Wednesday 10 May about a thousand people demonstrated in front of the Campidoglio, the seat of the city administration, together with many members of the Roman right.

As discontent grew, a group of city councillors from the Left and the Greens, who support the majority, also asked the mayor to review the measure to protect less well-off families. Faced with the protests, Mayor Roberto Gualtieri announced a review of the decision. In fact, the measure dates from last November and implements the plan approved by the Lazio Region in 2018, which had already been partly put on paper by the previous administration lead by Virginia Raggi. The protests were sparked by the installation of the gates that would make the first tranche of bans effective.

According to ACI data for 2022, there are thousands of cars registered in Rome that cannot be driven or parked in the so-called Green Belt on weekdays: 225,856 Euro 2 petrol cars and 104,589 Euro 3 diesel cars. From November 2023 and again from 2024, the restrictions will be gradually extended (146,756 Euro 4 diesel vehicles in 2023; 134,138 Euro 5 diesel vehicles and 67,535 Euro 3 petrol vehicles in 2024), including some categories of motorcycles and commercial vehicles.

According to an estimate by Roma Servizi per la Mobilità, taking into account only the cars that actually circulate in the Green Belt, there are about 30,000 families living inside the perimeter, while the number of affected families living outside the perimeter is 300,000. The measures adopted by the administration of Mayor Roberto Gualteri who, in anticipation of the economic consequences, has offered the incentive of free annual passes in exchange for scrapping their vehicles, have not been enough to calm tempers.

In Italy politicians want to punish environmentalists with disproportionate sentences

Other cities

Other cities have already introduced bans or are planning to do so. In Milan, for example, Area B was introduced on 1st October: from Monday to Friday, diesel cars up to Euro 5 and petrol cars up to Euro 2 are banned, affecting a total of 47,283 vehicles, or 13 per cent of the total number of vehicles on the road each day. In Turin, where polluting cars will be banned from 2021, the administration of Mayor Stefano Lo Russo has announced the installation of cameras to monitor offenders. Even Bologna has banned diesel cars up to Euro 3 from its restricted traffic zone from 1 January 2023, and will withdraw permits from those who already have a sticker.

The reason why so many cities are introducing bans is that Italy has failed for many years to comply with air quality regulations, in particular European Directive No. 50 of 2008, transposed by Legislative Decree No. 155 of 2010. For this reason, between 2014 and 2015, an infringement procedure was opened, which resulted in a condemnation by the European Court of Justice on 12 May 2022, due to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) exceedances in the cities of Turin, Milan, Bergamo, Brescia, Genoa, Florence, Rome, Catania and several areas of the Po Valley. And that is not all. On 1 January 2030, the new European directive will come into force with even stricter parameters (not to mention that the World Health Organisation already sets much lower limits).

Polluted air in the Po Valley

According to the report Mal'aria di città, published by Legambiente in 2023, air pollution in urban areas has decreased in recent years, but too slowly. The document estimates that, at the current rate of nitrogen dioxide reduction, it would take about 17 years for Milan, 36 years for Palermo, 13 years for Turin and 11 years for Rome to comply with the limits set by the regulations that will come into force in six and a half years' time.

For Pm2.5 — particulate matter with an aerodynamic diameter of 2.5 µm or less — Milan is expected to reduce its concentrations by 57 per cent, while Turin is expected to reduce them by 54 per cent. For Pm10, 29 cities will exceed the limit of 35 exceedance days in 2022: Turin tops the list with 98 days. With the new directive, the number of cities would be 71.

The cities with the highest number of exceedances are those in the Po Valley, where, unlike Rome, weather conditions do not allow pollutants to disperse. In the capital, however, the situation has improved: "The annual average concentration of nitrogen dioxide has been a major problem for years," explains to Lavialibera Alessandro Di Giosa, head of the Regional Air Quality Centre of Arpa Lazio.

"However," he continues, "from 2018 to 2022, an encouraging downward trend has been observed and only one control unit has exceeded the limit (in accordance with current legislation, ed.)." For Pm10, "the trend in daily exceedances over the five-year period 2018-2022 is still not systematically decreasing. However, there is a decreasing underlying trend at some stations, which is certainly a promising factor."

Pollution affects health

If restrictions on the most polluting cars affect families' wallets and the sustainability of everyday life, air pollution affects health. "In Italian cities, the main source is car traffic, the second is domestic heating, but only in winter," explains Carla Ancona, president of the Italian Association of Epidemiology and head of the Lazio regional health service.

As far as air quality is concerned, "both the large number of vehicles in circulation and their quality are a problem, as there are still too many vehicles with obsolete diesel engines equipped with filters that do not meet the standards for reducing pollutant emissions. And let us not forget that nitrogen dioxide is a tracer in diesel engines. Studies," adds Ancona, "confirm the link between the exposure of inhabitants of certain areas to polluting gases and particulate matter and mortality, the incidence of lung cancer and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Those most at risk are the elderly, children and people with pre-existing conditions."

Cause of death

According to a 2021 Istisan report by the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, there are 50,856 deaths each year linked to levels of ultrafine particulate matter (P2.5) above the World Health Organisation's limit, which is 8.26% of the total. These deaths would not occur if the air was less polluted. Many diseases are also linked to particulate matter. For example, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, Pm2.5, "the major tracers of traffic are carcinogens that are responsible for lung cancer."

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) also affects health: "The data tell us that it has effects on the cardio-respiratory system, although there are ongoing, inconclusive studies hypothesising a link between the early onset of diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's and the fact that citizens live in polluted areas." According to the participatory science campaign, "NO2 no thank you!" launched by Citizens for Air, which took place in Milan in 2021, around 1,500 people die every year due to exposure to nitrogen dioxide levels above the threshold set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In Rome, the figure is 1713. The campaign (the last one began in February 2023) involves citizens installing samplers near their homes, which are analysed after a month of exposure.

"These initiatives are very important to raise awareness among citizens," concludes Ancona: "This is a fundamental factor, because although administrations can act by setting up car-free zones, green Sundays and promoting soft mobility, individual behaviour, such as using public transport or, even better — if the destination is not too far away — walking, also has an impact."

A European problem

In its report Air pollution and health, the European Environment Agency estimates that in 2021, exposure to particulate matter above the levels set by the WHO will cause 238,000 premature deaths. This is an improvement in relation to 2005, when it was 45 per cent higher, but still not enough to meet the 55 per cent reduction target.

Pollution policies, such as bans on older vehicles, also hit the poorest hardest: "There is strong evidence linking lower socioeconomic status with greater exposure to air pollution," the report says. In Europe, "poorer people are more likely to live near busy roads or industrial areas." In addition, "poorer people often have poorer health because they have less access to quality health care." The costs will exceed €166 billion a year in Europe, Norway, Switzerland and the UK by 2020, according to one estimate quoted by the agency.

This article was translated by Kompreno with the support of DeepL.

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