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Belgrade: the city where dirty air is seen as a ‘consequence of economic growth’

When the Yugoslav prime minister Džemal Bijedić promised to clean the country’s air at a conference in Belgrade in 1974, a reporter from the New York Times wrote that there was little hope of early relief for the city’s residents, who felt the pollution was getting worse. “The choking, sulphurous atmosphere of Belgrade and several other major Yugoslav cities reddens eyes, shreds nylon stockings and ruins pianissimo passages in the concert hall because of the nearly continuous coughing it causes in audiences,” the writer said.

Half a century later, residents of Belgrade are still holding their breath. “I have asthma and it’s killing me,” says Dejan, 40, a graffiti artist and MC who runs a paint shop in the industrial Palilula district. “It’s not smog, man, it’s a black fog. You cannot see.”

The air in the capital of Serbia, a country of 7 million people in line to join the EU, is worse than in almost any other city in Europe. Belgrade is home to five of the 15 most polluted districts on the continent, Guardian analysis of modelling based on European air quality data has revealed. Foul coal plants, vast landfills, old vehicles and bad heaters spew a cocktail of toxic particles that land in the lungs and veins of the city’s residents.

Bubbling anger has at times boiled over into protests, but little has been done to make the air safe. Last month, in one of its first attempts to protect children from toxic fumes, the city put out a tender for 11,500 air purifiers to go in its schools and kindergartens.

People attend a protest calling for cleaner air in Belgrade last November
People attend a protest calling for cleaner air in Belgrade last November. Photograph: Darko Vojinović/AP

In doing so, “the city is admitting they cannot solve the problem”, says Milica Jablanović, a councillor with an opposition green party and a researcher at the Institute for Educational Research. “I sometimes have the feeling I am doing damage to my own children because I live here.”

In the summer, the air in Belgrade tastes only a little worse than that in London or Berlin. But come winter, when people burn more fuel and layers of warm urban air trap toxins near the ground, the city is smothered by blankets of smog that winds are too weak to throw off.

“You don’t have enough air and there’s an oily smell,” says Jelena Cvetić, 48, a pharmacist in central Belgrade. “People with asthma and cardiovascular problems usually have big problems on those days.”

A study funded by the Serbian science ministry this year looked at pollution data for summer months and estimated that fine particulates were responsible for one in five strokes, one in four cases of ischemic heart disease and one in 11 cases of lung cancer. It called on the city council to tell citizens when the air is bad and ask them to stay indoors.

Related: ‘The air tastes like burnt plastic’: Skopje’s chronic pollution problem

“Effective measures that curb air pollution need to be improved as soon as possible,” the researchers said.

The city council’s secretariat for environmental protection said its air pollution data was the most relevant for Belgrade. It said the city had taken a series of measures to cut air pollution and that its data showed no increase in the average annual concentration of PM10 particulates or the number of days exceeding the limit value. “These efforts had resulted in positive effects,” it said.

Like many capitals of the republics that made up Yugoslavia, Belgrade is powered by ageing power plants that burn lignite, a particularly dirty type of coal. In 2016, the 16 coal plants in the western Balkans emitted more sulphur dioxide than the EU’s fleet of 250 plants, according to a report from the nonprofit Health and Environment Alliance.

The worst pollution in Belgrade is found in Obrenovac, a municipality 25km (15 miles) from the centre that houses the bulk of the Nikola Tesla coal plant complex. In 2019, its air contained levels of fine particulates known as PM2.5 that were five times above the limits set by World Health Organization, the Guardian analysis found.

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Adding to the problem are leaky homes with old stoves that burn dirty fuels. Most buildings in Serbia were built more than 50 years ago, often with poor insulation, while more than 60% of the country’s space heating is provided by burning wood and coal. The result, in winter, is the choice between staying at home or breathing air that kills.

“Before I leave my bed, I check my air pollution app,” says Aleksandra Tomanić, the head of the nonprofit European Fund for the Balkans, which has run campaigns to tackle the region’s dirty air. If the warning level is orange, she opens a window. If it is red or purple, she waits – sometimes for the whole day.

“You literally feel it physically,” says Tomanić. “And when you feel it in your throat, you can imagine the state of your lungs.”

The city has made progress in some areas. Over the last decades, Belgrade has expanded its district heating network, which mostly runs on fossil gas, and ripped out more than 1,000 boilers. It has also stopped burning coal in some big public buildings.

Improvements are happening but it is not enough, says Elizabet Paunović, a retired doctor who used to lead the WHO’s European Centre for Environment and Health. “Yes, we have good examples, but these are examples – it has to really become the practice.”

People and politicians forget that the air in Belgrade is not just a threat in the winter, she says. It is only when pollution peaks “that the politicians are upset. But they should be upset 24 hours a day, 365 days a week.”

Low visibility during a day of heavy air pollution in Belgrade
Low visibility during a day of heavy air pollution in Belgrade. Photograph: Andrej Čukić/EPA

From a bridge over the Danube one afternoon in August, a year-round cause of Belgrade’s bad air can be seen and smelled in the rush-hour traffic jam. Ageing buses idle their engines next to lines of cars, some of which would fail emissions tests in the EU. Dotted among the older vehicles are modern but bulky SUVs that burn large amounts of fuel.

Below, less than 2 miles from central Belgrade’s Republic Square, piles of rubbish are heaped by the roadside of what was once an official landfill and is now an informal settlement where people sometimes burn plastic waste. In some cases, the rubbish is a fuel of last resort for those who cannot afford wood. Other times, fires are set to melt cables and extract metals to sell on the scrap market.

It creates a yellow cloud of smoke that people can “feel and taste”, says Dejan, whose shop is nearby. “It’s not just killing me, it’s the whole neighbourhood.”

Some residents are unbothered. Outside the Bajrakli mosque near Kalemegdan Park, the only Ottoman-era mosque to survive the repeated wars that have rocked the city, Nenad Lazarević, 39, the owner of a shwarma restaurant, says Belgrade has a lot of green spaces to which people can escape. “They’re trying to make it better, I think,” he says about the government.

Related: Revealed: almost everyone in Europe is breathing toxic air

Last year, Serbia adopted a €2.6bn (£2.2bn) action plan to reduce air pollution over the decade. It includes measures to clean up factories and speed up the phase-out of old cars, boilers and stoves.

Critics say there is not enough political will to clean the air quickly. Milenko Jovanović, who was fired from Serbia’s environmental protection agency (Sepa) in 2020, says he lost his job after objecting to a decision to raise the threshold at which air pollution is termed dangerous. The Serbian high court ordered the agency to reinstate him after ruling in his favour.

Sepa did not respond to a request for comment.

In recent years, residents of Belgrade have elected a handful of green politiciansto the city council who are frustrated with the pace of change. Dobrica Veselinović, from the Green-Left Front, a party that grew out of a protest movement against a waterfront construction project, says proposals to clean the air are argued down because bad air is seen as a “consequence of economic growth”.

During the environment conference in Belgrade in 1974, a government official presented a report that made no such distinction, the New York Times reported at the time. “Yugoslavia would not have to consider reducing her economic growth to curb pollution,” it found.

“Even in 1974, our prime minister was aware of what sustainable development is,” says Paunović, who was a teenager in Belgrade at the time. “You cannot develop with completely destroyed nature.”