SKOPJE (Reuters) - The Macedonian government has extended the school break until Jan. 23 and introduced measures to protect people from dangerous air pollution levels which have soared to 10 times above the European Union's regulatory limits.
Authorities in the capital Skopje, where face masks have become a common sight, introduced free train and bus rides and doubled parking fees to discourage the use of cars. People with chronic illnesses and the elderly have been excused from work.
"The air pollution has become one of the biggest problems in Macedonia," Jani Makraduli, the country's deputy minister of environment, told Reuters on Monday.
The annual winter scourge is caused by a mixture of emissions from old cars, coal burning and ageing industry, as well as poor spatial planning and solid fuel based heating,
The government has endorsed a programme to combat air pollution and set aside funds to help residents and public institutions switch to more ecological sources of heating.
It has also launched stricter control of industrial emitters, but the policies are seen by many as inadequate.
Environmentalists say the timeline for government activities, especially in the energy sector which relies mainly on heavy polluting lignite, is unclear and that improvements are long overdue.
"We are suffocating ourselves," Skopje resident Petar Stefanovski said. "Alternative solutions for heating are costly, there are to many cars and new buildings have created the Chinese Wall that stops air circulation."
The World Bank estimates that in Macedonia there are 1,350 deaths related to air pollution per year, which cost the country an equivalent of 3.2 percent of national output, or more than $360 million a year.
(Reporting by Reuters Television; Writing by Maja Zuvela; Editing by Aleksandar Vasovic and Ed Osmond)