If you mention Berlin air, the residents of Germany's capital just assume you are talking about the periodic odors that waft up from the city's sewage system. But the Berlin winds carry much more malicious dangers. And resident Ringo Mueller is tired of it; he has filed suit aginst the city for the lousy air he has to breathe.
At issue are the millions of tiny, invisible particles spewed into the air every day by cars, trucks, and factories. Just 0.1 micrometers in diameter (one millionth of a meter), once they pass through the lungs and into the blood stream, they can lead to heart attacks, cancer and asthma. The European Union is cracking down. A new law that went into effect in January of this year requires cities across the continent to clean up their acts or face lawsuits from private citizens like Mueller.
"Berlin has already exceeded the limit 25 times this year," says the 25-year-old, who lives next to a major six-lane city highway. He says he filed his suit on the behalf of "the mother with the small child who doesn't have the time or energy to do it on her own."
A scramble for damage control
The limit Mueller refers to is the new EU guideline which sets a daily maximum value of 50 micrograms of so-called fine dust in one cubic meter (about 35 cubic feet) of air. Cities are in violation as soon as they exceed that limit on more than 35 days each year. Berlin is getting close. But at least two other German cities -- Munich and Stuttgart -- along with a number of other municipalities from across Europe, are in violation. Now, the scramble is on to figure out what to do. On Wednesday, a two-day state minister meeting opened in Berlin. Damage control is high on the agenda.
The health hazards posed by the fine dust are considerable. According to one controversial EU study released in February, up to 65,000 people die each year in Germany alone as a result of this type of pollution. And while some experts dispute the mortality rate claimed by that EU study, they do agree that fine dust is especially toxic and carcinogenic. A highly-respected 16-year study by the American Cancer Society in the United States concluded that if the concentration of fine dust in a cubic meter of air increases by 10 micrograms, the annual mortality rate goes up by 6 percent.
The EU recognized the health hazards posed by this dangerous dust years ago and the guidelines have been four years in coming. But when they finally went into effect on New Year's Day, Germany was caught completely off guard. Now though, a number of emergency measures will be discussed at this week's meeting -- ranging from requiring all diesel cars and trucks to install particle filters to shutting down parts of the city to traffic at certain times.
"Everyone knew what to expect," scolded disgruntled German Environment Minister Juergen Trittin. He is now working on a new federal law that would provide tax incentives for cars outfitted with the new filters.
In reality, though, policy makers in Germany are hopelessly behind in preparing for fine dust limits. While measuring devices have been placed alongside major streets across the country, they have so far merely provided ammunition for the numerous lawsuits -- like Mueller's -- that the new regulations make possible. If the air Europeans breathe isn't clean enough, they can sue the city they live in.
The problem could have been avoided. Federal, state and local policy makers and traffic planners should have been considering measures such as requiring particle filters, imposing city tolls and even periodically closing off streets -- all measures which are now, finally, under discussion.
And yet when the environmental ministers met in late May 2004 to discuss the matter, they did nothing more than simply acknowledge it on the agenda. A month later, German Transportation Minister Manfred Stolpe even gave regional planning offices false information. The ministry explained that the guideline doesn't apply to "single streets or even single buildings" but rather to "larger spaces," which his office clarified as meaning "an area with more than 250,000 residents."
Unfortunately this was the opposite of what the Federal Administrative Court had ruled weeks earlier. Even now -- with lawsuits pending -- there are holdouts. Economic Minister Wolfgang Clement energetically argues for more inaction. He sees the concern as "practically hysterical," and "senseless." Germany, he says, needs a public debate on "mobility, not fine dust."
Diesel motors are the worst
But mobility, or rather, auto traffic, is a big part of the problem. While traffic may only contribute 17 percent of fine-dust, as compared to 35 percent from industry emissions, experts say it plays a larger role. "It's usually almost always the traffic measuring stations where the limits are exceed, not the stations near industry," says Wolf-Dieter Garber, expert for emissions at the Environment Ministry. And diesel motors are the worst offenders.
But instead of working to reduce the number of particle-polluters, the German government has rewarded drivers of diesel cars with cheaper fuel -- the tax on diesel is just 47 cents per liter, compared with 66 cents for gasoline -- and provided tax incentives to people for building houses in the suburbs and commuting to work. The policy promoted the ownership of cars with diesel engines using the powerful fuel injection technology developed by Germany's automakers.
And it worked. In 1999, fewer than a quarter of new cars were diesel in Germany. Today almost every second car is. Meanwhile, the new toll system that charges trucks driving on Germany's autobahn backfired, as cost-conscious drivers now save money by traveling on regional highways and through city streets. Suddenly cities like Hamburg are seeing their fine dust levels go through the roof as trucks steam through downtown.
The failure of German carmakers
None of this reflects well on Germany's auto industry and politicians have been vocal about blaming them. Like the politicians, German carmakers were well aware of the problem. More than twenty years ago Mercedes tested the first particle filters on the market in California in order to meet that state's strict emissions requirements.
Unfortunately the technology was faulty: filters got clogged or overheated, setting the bottom of the car on fire. So carmakers concentrated on reducing exhaust fumes instead.
Outside of Germany, other carmakers continued perfecting a filter. Peugeot even managed to develop a filter for diesel engines that removed 99 percent of the particles -- a success which Volkswagen CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder infamously disparaged the "silly little filter." VW, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Opel and Ford eventually talked about developing a complex solution that would be available only in luxury models at first.
Now, though, the filter technology gap is huge. French automaker Peugeot recently celebrated selling its one-millionth car with a particle filter since it introduced the technology in 2000. German carmakers, meanwhile, are struggling to get something, anything on the market. BMW, VW, Audi and Skoda announced almost simultaneously over the weekend that all new cars would be outfitted with particle filters and that they would make adaptors for older models. Tenneco Automotive, a major German supplier, is working in three shifts to produce 1,000 filter units a day.
Cigarettes are worse than a diesel exhaust pipe
Not all German cities are panicking, however. Back in 1989 the city fathers of Muenster, a university town in the north of the country, lowered the speed limit in the city center to 30 kmh. Today 85 percent of all streets in Muenster have a 30 kmh speed limit. The result: people ride their bikes instead. "People can simply travel much faster in the city by bicycle," says traffic planner Friedrich-Wilhelm Oellers. Commuters take the train in and pick up their bikes from a huge bicycle parking lot. Fine dust levels in Muenster were well below the EU limits even before the new guidelines took effect.
Oellers also has a good idea for further sinking fine dust levels: ban smoking. According to an Italian study, the smoke from a single cigarette produces as much fine dust as running a diesel motor for 100 minutes.