By Fatos Bytyci
PRISTINA (Reuters) - As the coldest winter in a decade swept through the Western Balkans, air pollution in Pristina caused by ailing power plants rose to unhealthy levels that were sometimes worse than those found in Beijing.
The air quality index measured by the United States embassy in Pristina exceeded 300 for several days in December, a level identified as hazardous for health. The black smog above Pristina is caused by emissions from coal-fired power plants on the outskirts of the city and excessive use of coal for heating.
The air quality index measured by the embassy was in the red again on Monday morning at 152.
"When we wash our white clothes and put them outside to dry them, very often we have to clean them again because of the dust," Besim Sllamniku, who lives near the power plants, told Reuters.
Kosovo, which has the world's fifth largest lignite reserves, relies on coal for power production and many households use it for heating because it is the cheapest fuel available. But excessive use of coal is taking its toll.
"We see a growing number of patients," Skender Baca, a pulmonologist at the state hospital, told Reuters.
A 2013 World Bank study showed air pollution in Kosovo was estimated to cause 852 premature deaths and 318 new cases of chronic bronchitis each year.
The situation is not much better in other states in the Balkans. According to official figures, poor air quality in Macedonia's capital Skopje is blamed for the premature death of 1,300 people each year.
Bosnia is number five on the World Health Organization (WHO) list of the deadliest countries for air pollution with 92 deaths in every 100,000 citizens due to pollution. It comes after Ukraine, Bulgaria, Belarus and Russia.
Anes Podic, an activist of the Eko akcija organization in Sarajevo, said coal-fired plants and use of coal for heating were the main pollutants in Bosnia.
"(Wooden) stoves are of a bad quality and have high emissions," he said, adding that the government should ban the use of coal for heating to reduce pollution.
The Brussels-based Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL)showed in a research study last year that around 60 percent of emissions in the Western Balkans reach European Union member states.
"If the EU wants to improve air quality it has to tackle the Balkans. It is difficult to have clean air if another (country) is polluting you," said Vlatka Matkovic Puljic, HEAL's health and energy officer for the Balkans region.
(Additional reporting by Maja Zuvela in SARAJEVO and Kole Casule in SKOPJE; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and Ed Osmond)