PARIS – Parisians taking public transportation to work Friday were surprised and delighted to find subways and buses free for the next three days, but the reason was a bit less cheerful: Air pollution had reached an unusually high level and was expected to continue unabated through the weekend.
Bad air quality might be familiar to tourists here from Beijing or Mumbai, but in this elegant capital where strict limits on building height create the illusion of plenty of fresh air, pollution is rarely this severe so early in the year and for so long.
“Due to a persistent episode of pollution with fine particles,” the Environment Ministry will impose exceptional measures, Philippe Martin, the minister, said in a somewhat cryptic statement Thursday.
His widely reported message left some people a little unsure exactly what he meant.
The French Health Ministry issued warnings particularly for the elderly, pregnant women, young children and those with respiratory ailments. In the parks, joggers could be heard complaining that they were finding it more uncomfortable than usual to run.
The government, seeking to reduce automotive tailpipe emissions, encouraged people to use a bicycle and the readily accessible electric cars by making both free through the weekend. Paris has pioneered bicycle and car sharing, putting ranks of bikes and small electric cars in most neighborhoods, and allowing Parisians and tourists to pay low rates to rent them.
Although people here became broadly aware of the problem only late this week, it has been building for days as a high-pressure system over the region created a string of sunny days with little wind, cold nights and warm days that left pollutants trapped in this low-lying city on the Seine River. Until this week, there had been little concerted effort to reduce pollution from cars and trucks.
A number of smaller cities, primarily in northern France, were affected as well.
The European Commission has repeatedly warned France that it is not complying with Europe-wide rules on air contaminant levels.
Michel Aubier, the supervising physician for pulmonology at Bichat Hospital in Paris, said several patients with chronic respiratory ailments had come to see him in the past few days, complaining of difficulty breathing. He said the cause was probably a combination of poor air quality and pollen, which with the recent warm weather here has also been on the rise.
“They cough more and find they are more often short of breath,” he said, adding that there was no risk from the air pollution for healthy people. “The only risk is for those who suffer from respiratory diseases, including asthma. Those who suffer from asthma need to be vigilant about their treatment and avoid exercise or other physical activity.”
The Paris police lowered the speed limit in the city and the Île-de-France region surrounding the capital, and asked people to refrain from burning wood in their fireplaces. The police reported more than 10,000 infractions Thursday, primarily for speeding.
The government also requested that trucks with heavy loads avoid traveling as much as possible and asked factories to work on a reduced schedule to limit emissions.