Zoltan Berki usually wakes up before dawn, as his five small children sleep next door, to feed the old iron furnace that stands in a wall cavity to warm up both rooms. This is the only part of his house that he can afford to heat during winter.
Come rain or shine, Berki, a stocky 28-year-old Roma man, cycles an hour to work to save on the bus fare, so he is up anyway.
But he also has to burn some materials before daylight, to conceal the thick black smoke that billows from his chimney when he uses plastic or rubber. Such household pollution is illegal in Hungary, including in this town near the Slovakian border.
People do it anyway. On a foggy winter’s day, dense smoke of different hues spews from nearly every chimney. It stays low in the air, gradually filling the narrow valleys.
“Firewood is expensive,” Berki said one recent afternoon, as his family played around him, crammed into a small room. “Either I buy wood or food. So I go to the forest, or the junkyard, and if we find plastic or rubber we burn that.”
The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled last week that Hungary had breached pollution limits for over a decade in the Sajo river valley, as well as other areas, which could be grounds for financial penalties unless reversed.
The ruling should be seen as “a wake-up call”, European Commission spokeswoman Vivian Loonela said.
The Hungarian government did not respond to a request for comment.
Although Hungary has reduced its carbon emissions in the past decades and is not the worst offender in Europe, pockets of high pollution persist, and rules are rarely enforced, according to locals and environmental rights groups.
The capital Budapest and the southern city of Pecs suffer too, but the situation in the Sajo valley, where pollution and poverty go hand-in-hand, is especially severe.
In Berki’s home, the hand-sized doors of the furnace open with a creak. Berki starts the flames and throws in a wood plank or two to build heat. Then he burns whatever he can. Plastic bottles, cut-up tyres and window frames all work. An old shoe often suffices.
Scavenging for material to burn is common for the poorest people in the small, run-down town of Sajonemeti and those nearby, among the most destitute communities in Europe since Communist-era heavy industry vanished 30 years ago, leaving thousands jobless.
Aware of the rules, Berki avoids burning some fuel by day.
“The neighbours can see, and you can also smell it,” he said. “We throw the rubber and the plastic bottles and such things on at night.”
The valley forms a dead end and prevents winds as cold air settles in, so heavy smog can linger for weeks. Several such areas exist in Hungary, together contributing to thousands of premature deaths every year, according to Europe’s top court.
YEARS OF ALARM
Hungarian environmental groups have been raising the alarm for years.
In 2020 Zsuzsanna F. Nagy, northeastern Hungary’s foremost environmental activist, surveyed locals about their heating practices, and found that while some people burned rubbish, even those who tried to heat homes properly often burned lignite or other coal products that were unfit for home use.
That echoed the assessment of the Clean Air Action Group, a Budapest-based green organisation, which said coal types can vary widely, and by using the wrong ones, households could erase gains made by a post-Communist cleanup of industry.
The gap between quality coal and low-grade alternatives can mean a 60-fold difference in particulate emissions, it said.
In Hungary, a country of 10 million people, air pollution causes an annual 13,000 premature deaths, a million people fall sick and billions of euros are lost to economic damage, Clean Air project leader Judit Szego said.
According to the European Environmental Agency, Hungary ranks third in Europe behind Bulgaria and Poland in health damage, losing an annual 1,128 life years per 100,000 residents due to particulate pollution, or small flying dust, alone - compared with about 500 in the UK or 250 in Sweden.
Air pollution can cause allergic reactions, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, the National Public Health Institute said in a 2017 study.
Berki’s five children all use inhalers because they suffer from asthma symptoms, he said. To his father, Zoltan Berki Sr., pollution means chest pain and coughs.
On Sunday, the elder Berki went to dig up leftover coal by hand - a common sight in winter.
The man-made mounds are littered with materials for burning, including logs from the old coal mine rail tracks which are infused with diesel.
“Smokes like hell but burns nicely,” he said as he piled up a few. “We collect what we find and take it home to burn. They heat up nicely, and we can’t afford to buy anything.”