Paris When It Coughs

BY ON March 26, 2014

Paris smog cartoon

Who would have thought that “The City of Light” could become so horribly dim?

Yes, Paris experienced some of its dimmest and dirtiest days just before the arrival of spring as air pollution levels spiked higher than at any time since 2007. Tourists, as well as Parisians arriving home from a weekend out-of-town, were shocked to see that they could not see the Eiffel Tower because of dense smog.

Particulate Matter Levels Soar

On March 14th the concentration of particulate matter (PM), measured in micrograms-per-cubic-meter of air, reached 185. The “maximum alert” level is 80, while “acceptable” is 50 and below. The European Environment Agency (EEA) reports: “Particulate matter pollution can cause or aggravate existing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and long-term exposure can contribute to heart attacks and arrhythmias, nerve problems and premature death in some cases.”

In response to the crisis, those with asthma and other respiratory diseases, outdoor sports enthusiasts, the elderly, children under 6 years old, tiny dogs, and anyone wanting to take a stroll in one of the most walkable cities in the world, were warned to move slowly or, better yet, stay indoors. Public transportation and velibs (the bicycle rental program) were declared gratuit. Most controversial was the “alternating days” vehicle restriction based on license plate number.


What caused this noxious event? We are told it was the fault of cool, dry nights and very warm daytime temperatures combined with the absence of the wind that would normally blow all that PM away to…somewhere else.

But the weather doesn’t cause PM. And wind doesn’t dissolve pollution, it just disperses it.

A finger was pointed at Germany, whose use of coal power stations has increased over the years, but winds in the Ile-de-France region generally come from the northwest, not the east.


Airparif, which monitors air quality in the Paris region, cites one major factor among others:  the “dieselization of the fleet,” i.e., the growth in popularity of diesel cars, which get better km/L (or MPG), and whose fuel is taxed less, than petrol cars. But these attractive incentives have a steep price. According to the EEA, “Belgium and France have some of the highest ownership rates of diesel cars in Europe, and diesel vehicles emit higher quantities of PM10 than their petrol equivalents.” (Not that gasoline cars are greener or less polluting.)

In a city noted for its convenient Metro, wide boulevards and open spaces, Paris still suffers enormous car-congestion, especially on the Périphérique, the circular road around the city.


So how did Parisians and other car commuters respond to the imposed vehicle restrictions? Fairly well, despite much grumbling, political bickering, and quite a bit of confusion due to the plan’s late implementation.

Still, more than 4,000 fines for violations of the restriction were handed out, as some drivers were willing to absorb the €22 ($31) cost of their transgression for the convenience, or perhaps necessity, of getting where they were going in good time; after all, traffic was less onerous. And for those with the correct license plate, street parking was free, which was hardly an encouragement to leave one’s car at home. (It’s worth noting that entering and exiting Paris by car does not require the payment of tolls. I shudder to think of what New York City traffic jams would be like if there were no tolls on the bridges and tunnels.)

Paris is not Beijing…Right?

In the midst of the worst of the event, the EEA noted: “While the current levels (of PM) pose a significant risk to health, peak levels can be up to 4-5 times higher in Asian cities like Beijing.” I doubt Parisians find consolation in that comparison.

The vehicle restriction lasted but one day. By March 18th the weather pattern had shifted, the breeze had returned, and traffic was chaotic.

La vie continue. Until the next episode.

Cartoon: Liza Donnelly


TOPICS: Air Pollution, Asthma, Heart Health