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Madrid council blames poor air on Saharan cloud; ecologists cite car exhausts.

28 January 2008

MADRID – Environmentalists on Friday accused Madrid City Hall of trying to shrug off its responsibility for rising pollution in the Spanish capital, a problem compounded in recent days by warm, dust-laden air blown up from Africa.

Ana Botella, the councillor in charge of environmental affairs, is showing her "ignorance and irresponsibility by downplaying or even denying the contamination problems" in the city, Ecologists in Action said in a statement.

On Thursday, Botella denied that traffic fumes are to blame for the increase in airborne contaminants, instead describing the recent spike in pollution as the result of the city being engulfed in air from the Sahara.

However, environmentalists note that it is not the first time climatic conditions have accentuated the pollution that usually swirls through the streets of the capital, thickening the air, irritating lungs and causing people with respiratory illnesses to seek out medical help.

Compared to relatively innocuous Saharan dust, the biggest risk factor is the high level of nitrogen dioxide, an irritant emitted from vehicle exhausts.

Since Saturday, readings from air-quality monitoring stations on Recoletos Street and Gregorio Marañón Street have shot above 220 micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre on numerous occasions, a level that can only be exceeded legally for 18 hours per year. The average amount of nitrogen dioxide in the air citywide over the last week has been 91 micrograms per cubic metre, more than double the legal annual limit.

What has City Hall done to address the recurrent pollution problems and their effects on health? Simply, it has urged people to avoid exercising outdoors, especially if they suffer from respiratory diseases such as asthma. It has not, however, taken any steps to reduce the amount of contaminants in the air, environmentalists say.

A plan to ban older, more heavily polluting vehicles from the city centre has yet to be rolled out, while Botella has so far refused to take more drastic steps now common elsewhere in Europe, such as limiting the entry of private vehicles into the city during pollution spikes.

[Copyright EL PAÍS / R. MÉNDEZ / E. G. SEVILLANO 2008]

Subject: Spanish news