Free rides to combat pollution in France, Belgium

Mar 14, 2014 by Lori Hinnant
The Eiffel Tower, is barely seen through the smog from Paris, Friday, March 14, 2014. Air pollution that has turned Paris skies a murky yellow is giving a break to millions of French travelers ó all public transportation in the Paris region and two other cities is free for the next three days. Nearly three-quarters of France is under alert in what the European Environment Agency says is the worst air pollution since 2007. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)

Air pollution that has turned the skies over Paris a murky yellow and shrouded much of Belgium for days forced drivers to slow down Friday and gave millions a free ride on public transportation.

The belt of smog stretched for hundreds of miles, from France's Atlantic coast to Belgium and well into Germany. It was the worst France has seen since 2007, the European Environment Agency said.

Nearly all of France was under some sort of pollution alert Friday, with levels in the Parisian region surpassing some of those in the world's most notoriously polluted cities, including Beijing and Delhi.

To combat the smog, around Paris and in two other cities was free Friday through Sunday. Elsewhere in France and in Belgium's southern Wallonia area, the free ride was only for Friday.

The smog is particularly severe here because France has an unusually high number of diesel vehicles, whose nitrogen oxide fumes mix with ammonia from springtime fertilizers and form particulate . Pollutants from the burning of dead leaves and wood contribute as well.

One complained earlier this week, denouncing the "inertia of the government," saying it was putting lives in danger.

There's no question that pollution can be an immediate health hazard, especially for the very young and old and for anyone with respiratory or cardiac disorders, said European Environment Agency air quality manager Valentin Foltescu.

A layer of smog covers the city of Brussels on Friday March 14, 2014. The INRIX traffic scorecard rated Belgium as the most congested country in the world with the Belgian cities of Antwerp and Brussels the most congested. The INRIX Traffic Scorecard provides a comprehensive analysis of the state of traffic congestion across the world. With more than 300,000 cars entering Brussels everyday and an average of 85,4 hours of traffic jams per car per year, road traffic is one of the main sources of air pollution in Brussels. As a result of the Smog alert maximum speed on the motorway has been cut to 90km/h (55mph). (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

"Some people will, unfortunately, die," Foltescu said. "There is a high correlation of pollution of this kind and mortality."

Speed limits dropped in France and Belgium and electronic billboards in Paris dispensed advice and emergency information.

But the website that keeps up-to-the-minute figures on the Paris region's air quality slowed to a crawl and asked visitors to follow it on Twitter or Facebook rather than crash the site.

An electronic road sign on the Paris ring road reads "Pollution" Friday March 14, 2014. Air pollution that has turned Paris skies a murky yellow is giving a break to millions of French travelers—all public transportation in the Paris region and two other cities is free for the next three days. Nearly three-quarters of France is under alert in what the European Environment Agency says is the worst air pollution since 2007. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)

Foltescu said if everyone follows the government's advice "you will see an instant difference."

If not, he added, the pollution would last about as long as the region's unseasonably warm and sunny weather.

Explore further: Paris makes public transport free to tackle severe pollution (Update)

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