Gran Via at sunset

by Rose Maramba

High levels of pollution is hitting Madrid hard. The lack of rain is a major factor though not the only one. Motor vehicles are another.

To make it worse, Madrid, like many parts of Spain, faces a future of drought situations. Read that as climate change. Just recently, during a prolonged dry period (Oh sunny Spain!), road and bus stop panels in the capital warned of “alta contaminación”.

For the past eight years air pollution in Madrid has often topped European Union limits. It’s not unusual to see readings from the air quality monitoring stations around the city reaching 180 micrograms (mcg) of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) per cubic meter (m3). This was a reading on a day of hazardous pollution in October at the Plaza de Fernandez Ladreda station. It peaked with 229 mcg at 9:00 PM.

Nitrogen Dioxide

At high NO2 levels, no prolonged outdoor exertions

Raised levels of NO2 contribute to the formation of smog which increases the likelihood of respiratory problems. It inflames the lining of the lungs and reduces immunity to lung infections giving rise to wheezing, coughing, colds, flu, bronchitis, and more frequent and intense asthma attacks.

151-200 mcg of NO2 is UNHEALTHY FOR EVERYBODY. But those who should especially watch out and avoid prolonged outdoor exertion are people with lung disease, such as asthma, and children and older adults in general. Everyone else should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.

The levels between 201 and 300 mcg are VERY UNHEALTHY. (Source: US Environmental Protection Agency,

According to the World Health Organization outdoor pollution led to an estimated 3 million premature deaths worldwide in 2012.



Back to Madrid: On the same day in October, the El Pardo air quality station registered 103 mcg/m3 of ozone (O3).

Breathing in ozone can be deadly. Ozone can cause serious health problems, including breathing difficulty, asthma attacks, lung damage, and early death. Exposure to ozone can make the lungs more susceptible to infection, aggravate lung diseases, increase the frequency of asthma attacks as well as the risk of early death from heart or lung disease.

The El Pardo station’s 103 mcg of O3 (the 101 – 150 range) is UNHEALTHY for sensitive groups (people with lung disease such as asthma, older adults, children and teenagers, and people who are active outdoors). They should therefore reduce prolonged or heavy outdoor exertion, take more breaks, do less intense activities and watch for symptoms such as coughing or shortness of breath. Outdoor activities are better scheduled in the morning when ozone levels are lower. (Source: US EPA,

Particle Pollution

Particulate matter: Allergens like pollen

Particle pollution or particulate matter is a mix of microscopic solids and liquid droplets in air. Its components include acids, organic chemicals, metals, soil or dust particles, and allergens (pollen or mold spores, for example).

The size of the particles is proportionate to their potential for risks to health. The smaller they are the greater the threat they pose. The tiniest can easily penetrate the lungs and even the bloodstream.

Particle pollution causes premature death in people with heart or lung disease; nonfatal heart attacks; irregular heartbeat; aggravated asthma; decreased lung function; increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or breathing difficulty. . . (Source: US EPA, )

And what’s Madrid doing about the awful ambient air pollution?

“Gran Vía will be a much friendlier, very green street with spaces to sit and enjoy and will give priority to pedestrians,”  says the Councilor for Sustainable Urban Development  José Manuel Calvo.

Why Gran Via? The six-lane artery, which bisects Madrid, is the nerve center of the capital, and one of the most popular tourist destinations bursting at the seams with upscale shops, restaurants, theaters and hotels. Predicably, it suffers continuously from appalling air quality due mainly to the 50,000 cars, many of which are diesel-fueled, that pass through daily, crawling bumper to bumper  during the rush hours, belching soot and NO2.

Gran Via at the old Christmas when there was no such thing as traffic restrictions

So if the city officials must take the bull by its horns and reduce pollution to acceptable levels, there’s no better place to start than in Gran Via. Mayor Manuela Carmena can’t bring on the rain to cleanse the air but she plans banning cars from the “Great Way” in three years, making it a semi-pedestrianized promenade, its sidewalk drastically widened. Only public transport, bikes and cars of residents will be allowed in.

Gran Via in the (near) future, as projected by Madrid City Hall

Additionally, most diesel cars will be banned from everywhere in Madrid by 2025. Meanwhile, Gran Via will be closed to private vehicles during the Christmas Holidays.

The opposition parties have already raised a hue and cry about many aspect s of Carmena’s Plan.

What’s the score, really?

Spain is one of the most environmentally-friendly countries in the world according to the 2016 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) produced by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy. EPI annually ranks 180 countries based on an assessment of their respective policies and whether or not they are meeting internationally established environmental targets.

For all her grim eco-record, Madrid isn’t doing all that bad

Finland leads (EPI’s) 20 most environmentally-friendly countries. Spain ranks 6th, France 10th, the UK 12th, Australia 13th. . . Luxemburg brings up the rear.

For all her grim eco-record, Madrid isn’t doing so bad either. According to the European Green City Index (, Madrid is the  12th of the 30 most environmentally-friendly cities, just below London and above Vilnius. Copenhagen tops the index, Kiev is at the bottom.


Featured image/Son of Groucho, CC BY2.0
Outdoor tennis/Frédéric de Villamil, CC BY-SA2.0, cropped
Pollen/Suzie Tremmel, CC BY2.0
Gran Via at Christmas/Pedro Belleza, CC BY2.0
The new Gran Via/Ayuntamiento de Madrid
Bikers at Retiro Park/Manuel via Flickr, CC BY2.0