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Spanish prosecutors, ecologists urge action on pollution

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Spain’s public prosecutors joined environmental  groups Wednesday in demanding emergency measures to clear a thick layer of  smog lingering over Madrid that medics warned could have grave health effects.

Both Madrid and Barcelona, Spain’s two largest cities, have seen their  levels of atmospheric pollution rise due a high pressure system lodged over  the Iberian peninsula that prevents the pollutants from clearing.    Meteorologists expects the weather pattern, which has also brought sun and  warm weather since last week, to last until at least Friday.

Virtually all levels of air contamination in Madrid and the surrounding  area, home to over five million people, are higher than those recommended by  the World Health Organisation, said a spokesman for environmental group  Ecologists in Action, Paco Segura.    “Madrid has very serious problems of air pollution. We broke the limits in  2010 and we are breaking them now,” he told a news conference.

The European Union recommends that levels of tropospheric ozone, also  called “low level ozone”, not be allowed to surpass 120 micrograms per cubic  metre.    In Madrid this level was surpassed at eight out of 23 measuring stations,  according to the environmental group.    “We demand immediate measures be taken to promote the use of public  transportation and discourage the use of private cars,” said the president of  the regional federation of residents’ associations of Madrid, Ignacio Murgui.

The group called for the number of parking spaces to be reduced and their  costs increased, the use of bicycles to be encouraged and for limits to be  placed on the rise in the cost of public transportation.    Another environmental group, Equo, went even further, calling for cars to  be banned “immediately” from the centre of Madrid and all public  transportation be free of charge.    At the same time the public prosecutors’ office has sent an official letter  to the mayor’s office urging the city take steps “to lower pollution levels  because they have surpassed European limits”, a spokesman for the office said.    Municipal authorities in the Spanish capital have since Monday used  overhead panels on the city’s ring road to advise drivers to take public  transport “as a preventive measure” to avoid raising pollution levels.

The municipality, which is controlled by Spain’s conservative opposition  Popular Party, came under fire last year for moving the measuring stations to  less polluted districts of the city in a bid to post lower levels.    Spain’s Environment Minister Rosa Aguilar said Madrid, unlike Barcelona,  had not adopted any measures to fight the smog.    “Surely we’ll soon have some proposals,” she told a news conference.

The government of the northeastern region of Catalonia, which had a  long-standing plan to increase speed limits from 80 kph (50 mph) on some   motorways entering Barcelona from Monday, postponed the measure to reduce the  risk of pollution.    Air pollution is reponsible for 16,000 premature deaths each year in Spain,  according the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union.    “It can increase mortality by at least five percent,” warned Doctor Javier  Gonzalez Medel, the spokesman for the Association for the Defence of Public  Health in Madrid.

When the International Olympic Committee was considering bids from host  cities for the 2016 Games, Ecologists in Action presented it with a study that  showed that Madrid suffered from higher air pollution levels than other major  European cities like London and Paris.    The Games were awarded to Rio de Janeiro, which eliminated the Spanish  capital in the final round of voting.

Madrid, Feb 9, 2011 (AFP)