More citizens-led data on the damage caused by deadly diesel

The citizens-led campaign to reduce air pollution in Milan has spread to Rome, with the NGO behind the ‘NO2 – no thanks’ campaign publishing figures on dangerous air quality in the Italian capital, as well as more detailed information about Milan. The figures focus on the health impacts, but in Rome they also highlight the increased threat of erosion to some of the city’s greatest monuments, including the Colosseum.

Earlier this month, T&E reported on the campaign carried out in 2017 involving volunteer researchers led by T&E’s Italian member Cittadini per l’Aria, which may succeed in forcing the mayor of Milan to support a ban on diesels in the city by the start of 2025. The campaign involved asking the volunteers to place passive sampler tubes that measure NO2 in front of homes, schools and workplaces around the city for 30 days at a time. They then returned them to Cittadini per l’Aria, which sent them for analysis.

A new analysis of the data has led epidemiologists to draw up the most detailed map yet of Milan’s air quality. It shows 594 additional premature deaths are caused every year by nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels exceeding the legal limit of 40ug/m3. The figure represents 5% of all deaths in Milan, or one every 15 hours. Data was collected from more than 220 simple but accurate test devices, and processed by independent laboratories.

Figures have also been released for Rome, following a similar study involving volunteers collecting air quality data. The political capital to be earned from the scheme was highlighted by the mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, taking part in the initiative by placing a sampler kit outside her child’s school. Rome has already announced plans to ban diesels from the city centre by 2024 – a resolution strengthened by the new campaign findings.

As well as highlighting the health impacts of excessive NO2 emissions, knowing the precise location of the sources of the Rome data allowed Cittadini per l’Aria to draw attention to the risk of erosion of monuments through salt crystallisation and biodegradation caused by diesel emissions. Among the historic monuments threatened by diesel exhaust are the Colosseum, San Clemente Basilica, the Piazza del Parlamento, and the Caracalla Baths.

Anna Gerometta of Cittadini per l’Aria said: ‘With politicians failing us, people in Rome and Milan have taken matters into their own hands. The data they have gathered goes beyond what public bodies have ever achieved. With the results showing high levels of pollution, policymakers will find it hard to dodge the issue. We need a total ban on diesel cars as traffic fumes are stunting the development of our children. Will it really be necessary for kids to demonstrate in the streets, like they did in America against gun laws, before policymakers do something?’

Francesco Forastiere, recently retired as senior epidemiologist at the Rome regional health authority, said: ‘After the amazing NO2 measurement campaigns conducted by Cittadini per l’Aria, we have detailed air pollution maps in Rome and Milan with pollution estimates for each corner of our cities. NO2 is a toxic gas whose main source is vehicle exhaust, mainly diesel engines. It is a deadly gas and the only way to get rid of it is to reduce vehicle numbers, especially diesel.’

Cittadini per l’Aria has also conducted similar citizens-led measuring campaigns in Brescia, and the results showed widespread violations of NO2 limits. A group of citizens in Bologna have also adopted the Ciddadine model and mapped their NO2 concentrations, which will be delivered to the public authorities.