Milan has new rules to improve air quality. But is it really the third most polluted city globally?

Athletes take a break as they run at the San Siro hill and look at the view skyline of Milan, Italy, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.
Athletes take a break as they run at the San Siro hill and look at the view skyline of Milan, Italy, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. Copyright AP Photo/Luca Bruno
By Rosie Frost
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Dry weather and warm temperatures have worsened the Italian city’s smog problem.

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Air pollution in the Lombardy region of Italy has pushed authorities to introduce strict new rules.

Restrictions have been brought in on heating homes, spreading sewage on crops and the use of heavy motor vehicles during the daytime. By Tuesday, nine of the region’s 12 provinces, including Milan, were impacted by the smog emergency.

Air pollution isn’t unusual in the region but, plagued by low rainfall and unseasonably high temperatures, the situation reached a critical point earlier this week. Claims that Milan was one of the cities with the worst air pollution in the world have also caused controversy.

Is warm, dry weather making pollution worse in Milan?

Unusually high winter temperatures and low rainfall have made the smog problem worse, authorities said on Monday, meaning temporary measures had to be put in place to reduce pollution.

Countries across the Mediterranean are suffering under drought conditions as warm weather and a lack of precipitation compound problems with water supplies. It is something that could become a “new normal” for the region without action on climate change, experts have said.

Rain and wind forecast from Thursday is expected to ease the situation in Lombardy and other parts of the Po Valley.

The regional unit of the environmental protection agency ARPA also said that meteorological conditions “unfavourable to the dispersion of pollutants” are usual in the area. The Alps and the Apennines which enclose the Po Valley on three sides mean it has one of the lowest wind speeds in Europe.

A view of the Duomo gothic cathedral from the San Siro hill, in Milan, Italy, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.
A view of the Duomo gothic cathedral from the San Siro hill, in Milan, Italy, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.AP Photo/Luca Bruno

Last year, ARPA explained, rain in January and warm winds in February prevented the high levels of pollution from traffic, heating, industry and agricultural spreading of sewage that are usual during the first months of the year.

“What is happening is generally comparable with what was measured in previous years and better than what was measured five, 10 or 20 years ago,” the agency added.

Is Milan really one of the most polluted cities in the world?

The region’s smog problem attracted attention earlier this week when IQAir, a Swiss air pollution monitoring company, labelled Milan’s air as “unhealthy” on Sunday. It said the city’s particulate - PM2.5 - pollution was 24 times the limit recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The company ranked Milan third behind Dhaka in Bangladesh and Lahore in Pakistan, two countries known to have consistently poor air quality. On Tuesday, it briefly climbed into second place before dropping back down to 10th.

Officials in Lombardy dispute the ranking, saying measurements change from hour to hour producing a list that changes “depending on the moment in which you look at it”. ARPA said that long-term averages at the same site place the Lombardy capital in 531st place.

Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala dismissed it as an “unusual impromptu analysis made by a private body”. He accused the media of reporting news read on social media, saying that ARPA has carried out other analyses that demonstrate the opposite.

IQAir collects its data from government monitoring stations and sensors owned by citizen scientists around the world.

ARPA did acknowledge that the city’s air had passed a limit in recent days. It was this that triggered anti-pollution measures like limits on daytime traffic in the worst affected parts of the region.

Premature deaths from air pollution in Italy

Amid the controversy over Milan's air pollution ranking, the Italian Society of Environmental Medicine (SIMA) commented on the smog situation. It said that Italy had the highest number of deaths attributable to air pollution in Europe with 80,000 each year. 

"The direct effects of pollution on human health affect various systems and organs," SIMA president, Alessandro Miani told news agency ANSA. That includes effects on the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. 

For this reason, he added, "it is essential and can no longer be postponed to act quickly to drastically reduce the main sources of emissions of air pollution."

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Miani said that one of the main causes of smog is private buildings and home heating, making it necessary to "change daily habits by rationalising energy consumption, limiting the times the systems are turned on and lowering temperatures in the home."

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