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All public transport in Paris and several other French cities will be free this weekend in an attempt to reduce the number of cars on the road and improve what has been described as “dangerously” poor air quality.
Nearly three-quarters of France is under maximum alert in what the European Environment Agency says is the worst air pollution since 2007.
The metro, buses and trains are free from today until Sunday night in the entire Paris region, as well as the cities of Caen, Grenoble, Reims and Rouen.
Meteorologists say unusually warm, windless days followed by cool nights have prevented the pollution from dispersing.
Jean-Paul Huchon, head of the organisation that oversees transport in the Paris area, said the toxic air posed “significant risks to the health of residents”.
A strong prevalence of “particulate matter”, particles with a diameter of less than 10 microns, or PM10, was reported in Paris and at least 30 French départements.
These are the most monitored as the smaller and lighter a particle is, the longer it stays in the atmosphere and can remain suspended for weeks.
Particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter also pose the greatest health risk as they penetrate deep into the lungs and the blood system. They can also lead to asthma, allergies and respiratory diseases.
Alert levels in Paris are reached when the daily concentration of PM10 in the air surpasses 80 microns per cubic metre of air.
The decision to waive public transport fees comes days after an environmental group brought a complaint denouncing the “inertia of the government” that it says has endangered lives.
Christophe Nadjdovski, Ecology candidate for mayor of Paris, said the current Socialist town hall had failed to impose sufficient measures, such as alternating car use, or obliging lorries to circumvent the city.
Environmental also groups blame successive governments for promoting the use of diesel vehicles – used by 67 per cent of French motorists – via tax breaks that are still in place.
The pollution woes of Paris pale into comparison with cities in China, India and Iran, according to World Health Organisation figures.
Ahwaz, in southwestern Iran, far outstrips infamously polluted cities like New Delhi or Beijing, with 372 parts per million of PM10. Beijing, by comparison, was on 121 parts per million, Paris on 38 and London on 29.
France, along with several other countries, risks a multimillion-euro fine from the European Commission for failing to rein in air pollution.