How to

13 March 2017

Altitude Sickness – Why Air Pollution is an Increasing Issue in the Alps

There are many things to concern yourself with when you book a skiing holiday, from price to gear to weather conditions. Health is another one, but that usually translates to ‘fear of getting injured’. Skiing and snowboarding carry a higher risk of injury than any other kind of popular holiday, but if you’re heading for the alps, there’s another risk that most people wouldn’t even consider: bronchitis.

The Arve Valley – one of the most popular skiing regions in France – has some of the worst fine particle pollution in the country during the winter. Fine and ultra-fine particles are the most likely to cause bronchitis, as well as other respiratory diseases like asthma.

High traffic density and industrial activity in the valley below both contribute to the dirty air, and the v-shape made by the mountains stops the wind from dispersing it. The other issue is that the air in mountain regions is cooler in the valleys, so it doesn’t rise easily. This rather troubling combination of factors has led to an unprecedented rise in cases of bronchitis.

At the local schools, the youngest children are kept indoors during break time, and even the older kids aren’t allowed to overexert themselves while they’re outside. In Chamonix, they have a local website which tracks the particle levels in the air, and warns locals when it’s risen to dangerous levels. The town – a very popular destination for skiers – has been trying to cope with the pollution issue for more than 15 years, but progress is slow, and in 2012 the EU actually threatened to sue them for public endangerment.

Chamonix have been taking drastic steps to reduce the town’s carbon footprint, most notably by making public transport free, thus encouraging residents and visitors alike to avoid driving, but there’s another, bigger problem. It’s an alpine tradition to keep open fires burning, both in homes and in lodges. It’s estimated that 60-80% of the fine particle pollution in l’Arve is caused by wood-burning stoves and fireplaces. In the evenings, you can see columns of dark smoke rising from almost all the houses in Chamonix.

There has been plenty of awareness campaigning to deal with this issue, but it’s slow progress. For many in the Alps, fireplaces are an affordable alternative to central heating system. Locals remain the most at risk from these issues, but if the level of air pollution continues to be a problem, it could start to drive tourists to other parts of the Alps, putting a major dent in the region’s primary source of revenue.

There’s only so much that towns like Chamonix can do against this, France and Switzerland both need to get more heavily involved. The Alps are an extremely popular trade route for lorries, something else which heavily contributes to air pollution. At a national level, financial aids or incentives could also be introduced to encourage people to change the way they heat their homes. This is a major issue, but it’s far from irreversible.

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.