If this continues, people will have to flee Hungary to escape sickness and death

The Hungarian government decided to scrap caps on gas and electric power prices for “higher-usage households” from 1st August 2022, which means that most Hungarians will pay more (many of them much more) for the energy they consume. The government also waived environmental regulations protecting forests from undue logging. According to the environmental NGO Clean Air Action Group, these measures will contribute to the premature death of thousands of Hungarians and up to a million new illnesses in the coming period. Namely, there will be a huge increase in the use of solid fuels by households and thus in air pollution.

Burning of solid materials is by far the main cause of air pollution in Hungary. Wood burning releases large amounts of fine solid particles into the air: burning dry wood in a stove releases a thousand times as many particles per unit of energy produced as the exhaust pipe of an old diesel truck. According to the European Environment Agency, these particles cause the premature death of 13,000 people in Hungary every year, and these people lose an average of more than 10 years of their lives. On a per capita basis, Hungary has twice as many deaths from air pollution as, for example, France or the Netherlands. But the number of deaths is only the tip of the iceberg, as there are 100 times as many illnesses due to polluted air. Among those particularly at risk are the elderly, people with cardiovascular disease, and children, who can get lifelong illnesses from the bad air they now breathe.

Burning wet wood releases far more harmful substances into the air than burning dried wood. But as wood production picks up, more people will heat their homes with fresh wood, rather than waiting the year and a half or two years for it to dry out.

The government has also ordered an increase in lignite production. Obviously, this will be accompanied by an increase in the sale of lignite to the public, which should have been banned long ago, since burning lignite in households causes even more air pollution than burning wet wood.

It is also likely that there will be a significant increase in the number of illegal residential burnings, which are already widespread: more people will burn treated wood, plastic, rubber and other waste in their stoves. The resulting smoke can be up to a thousand times more toxic than the smoke from burning dry wood. And this highly toxic smoke reaches everyone, wherever they live: even in Budapest, particles from illegal burning account for five per cent of all air pollutants in the air during the heating season, but their toxicity can be up to hundred times greater than that of the remaining 95 per cent.

“We believe that the new measures by which the government intends to secure energy supplies for households are deeply flawed. If these measures remain in force, many people will leave the country not only in the hope of better living conditions, but also to protect their own health and the health of their families, because of the massive air pollution and destruction of nature,” said András Lukács, President of Clean Air Action Group.

Instead of promoting the burning of solid fuel, it would be advisable to conduct a broad public awareness-raising campaign with the help of independent experts on the seriousness of the situation and how residents can reduce their energy costs by simple methods (such as heating with wood properly). At the same time, it is worth redirecting all possible resources and professionals (retraining them if necessary) to increase household energy savings and improve energy efficiency. It is also essential to strengthen the authorities so that they can take effective action against illegal residential burning.

Photo by Clean Air Action Group