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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Purging the Foul Air of Communism

KRAKOW, Poland -- In 1980, Tadeusz Hyla submitted an offbeat proposal for his master's thesis in chemistry. Every day for a month, he would sample the dust that settled on his bedroom window sill overlooking this city's historic old town and the smoke-belching steel mills beyond. The idea was to isolate as many chemical elements as possible from the noxious airborne cocktail Krakovians called air. Hyla's samples were so abundant that within 10 days his bedside fieldwork was complete. In all, he identified 35 elements, including mercury, fluorine, sulfur, cadmium, lead, copper and zinc.

Today, the young scientist might have trouble duplicating those results. Krakow, a seat of Central European culture since the 11th century and a sump for the continent's foulest air in the latter half of the 20th, is breathing a little easier.

The story of Krakow's freshening atmosphere -- like that of many East European reclamation projects after 40 years of environmental devastation under communist rule -- is one of accident as well as intention. An anti-pollution program has been launched, backed by $40 million in U.S. aid, but officials here say that the key ingredient in improving local air quality has been a sharp industrial slowdown following the collapse of the communist regime and the inefficient smokestack economy it built.

Between the return of democracy to Poland in 1989 and last year, the amount of toxic dust and other particulates in the city's air fell by 45 percent. Lung-searing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide levels dropped by about half, deadly carbon monoxide by nearly two-thirds. During the same period, dozens of factories around Krakow and nearby Katowice ground to a halt, victims of Poland's rush toward a market economy.

From Hyla's apartment on the top floor of a 15th-century walk-up, the Tatra Mountains, blocked from view for decades by acrid smog, are now visible on fine spring days. Drinking glasses stored in an antique cabinet now need washing only once every two weeks instead of every other day.

"My car has been red for almost a year now," said Hyla. "The last one I had was yellow for about a month, then permanently gray."

With such small victories, the battle may ultimately be won, but officials here recognize that the struggle to overcome nearly a half-century of environmental abuse has a long way to go.

Between 1950 and 1980, Krakow had the highest cancer rate in Europe, and the incidence of lung cancer is still alarmingly high, local public health officials say. Cases of bronchitis, skin disorders, asthma and throat infections far exceed the national average.

Krakow's spires, statuary and medieval stonework also have suffered from the daily bath of acidic air and rain. Experts estimate that buildings in Krakow have been decaying at a rate up to 40 times faster than similar urban structures elsewhere.

The once fearsome gargoyles atop the Sukiennice cloth merchants' hall, a Renaissance masterpiece in the center of Krakow's old city, now look like ancient coins rubbed smooth by thousands of fingers. A 1970 photograph clearly shows them with tooth-sharp profiles and leering smiles.

Industrialization came late and with politically inspired vengeance to Krakow. The city, Poland's capital from 1039 to 1611, has always prided itself on its intellectual traditions and maverick ways. In 1946, when Poland's Soviet-backed Communist leaders asked citizens to "answer three times yes" to party rule, Krakow voted more than 90 percent no. Over the next decade, medieval Krakow and its anti-communist attitudes were walled in by smoke-spewing heavy industry.

In 1954, the massive Lenin Steelworks opened at Nowa Huta, just five miles east of Krakow. By 1977, the steel plant was discharging 104,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the air annually, along with 20 other toxic substances. And Nowa Huta was just part of the region's infamous "black triangle" -- a swathe of coal mines, metal foundries, chemical plants and power stations stretching south to Slovakia and west through Poland's Silesia region to the gritty factory towns of East Germany. Downwind from all this was Krakow.

A population boom followed the rapid industrialization of the region, generating still more pollution with auto emissions and coal-burning stoves. With the transition to democratic government, Krakow's regional environmental agency was given the power to shut down polluting factories. But the biggest environmental bonus here has been the industrial contraction.