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HEALTH

Czech Republic sends Italy replacements for seized Chinese face masks

Czech authorities said on Monday they had sent 110,000 face masks to Italy as compensation for a contingent seized from traffickers that turned out to be part of a donation from China to Italy.

Czech Republic sends Italy replacements for seized Chinese face masks
Sewing face masks at a factory in northern Italy. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Described as a “theft” by some media, the seizure angered Italy, currently the global epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic with almost 5,500 deaths and its hospitals at breaking point.

There is a massive shortage of protective medical gear in Europe, including the face masks and hazmat suits that medical personnel need to lower the risk of infection with the deadly novel coronavirus.

READ ALSO: Tensions rise as face masks sent to Italy from China end up in the Czech Republic

“We've just sent 110,000 face masks to Italy by bus heading to Rome… along with 43 Italian tourists who could not get back home,” Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek told AFP.

“The Czech Republic certainly didn't steal anything,” Petricek said, adding that Prague had sent 10,000 more replacement masks of the “same type”.

The Italian daily La Repubblica wrote on Saturday that Czech authorities seized Chinese masks intended for Italy's hospitals under guise of a sting against traffickers, in an article titled: “How the Czech Republic sequestered thousands of masks sent from China to Italy.”

Petricek said that someone had torn a sign off the Czech consulate in Milan. “I can understand the reaction following the information in the media,” he said.

The sting against medical goods traffickers occurred on March 17 as the Czech Republic tightened controls on the export and distribution of medical materials.

Czech police seized 680,000 face masks and respirators from a warehouse of a private company in Lovosice, north of Prague, including just over 100,000 masks donated by China to Italy.

Petricek said police were investigating how the face masks had ended up in the warehouse in Lovosice.

“To be quite frank, Lovosice is not quite en route from China to Italy,” Petricek told AFP.

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ENVIRONMENT

REVEALED: These are the most polluted towns in Italy

The northern cities of Milan and Turin were named Italy's 'smog capitals' in a new pollution report on Monday which urged the government to take action over poor air quality.

REVEALED: These are the most polluted towns in Italy
Photo: Pixabay

Smog and pollution are choking Italian cities year-round and many towns are exceeding limits on fine particles and other pollution, according to another report from Italian environmental watchdog Legambiente.

The Mal’aria di città (Air pollution in the city) report for 2023, unveiled on Monday, was the latest to warn about the risks to health posed by pollution in many parts of the country.

It found that 25 of 95 cities monitored had violated clean air ordinances by exceeding daily fine particle (PM10) emission limits, which are currently set at no more than 35 days a year with a daily average of over 50 micrograms per cubic metre.

Turin was ranked as the worst offender, exceeding this level on 90 days, closely followed by Milan (84), Asti (79), Modena (75), and Padua and Venice at 70.

These were followed by Cremona, Treviso, Mantua and Rovigo, all of which exceeded limits to a lesser degree.

All of the most polluted cities were in the northern Italian regions of Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and Veneto, with most within the north-western ‘industrial triangle’.

Some southern cities featured nearer the bottom of the ranking, with Andria (Puglia) and Ragusa (Sicily) exceeding limits on several days, as well as Rome, which overshot the permitted level for one day.

(Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

The average annual rate of PM10 emissions nationwide dropped slightly, by two percent year-on-year, the report found.

“This, however, is not enough to guarantee the health of citizens,” said Stefano Ciafani, president of Legambiente.

He pointed out that the situation looked even worse if air quality in Italian cities were measured against tighter limits under the new European Directive on air quality, in force from 2030, which lowers the PM10 threshold from 35 to 20 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

“Only 23 out of 96 cities (24 percent) would be under these limits,” Ciafani said, while 84 percent would exceed the threshold for PM2.5 and 61 percent for nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

Italy has repeatedly been reprimanded by the European Union over air quality, and has “persistently and systematically” breached EU recommended limits, the European Court of Justice ruled in 2020.

The north of Italy has long been ranked among the worst areas in Europe for polluted air according to data from the European Environment Agency.

“Air pollution is not only an environmental problem, but also a health problem of great importance,” said Ciafani. “In Europe, it’s the main cause of premature death due to environmental factors.”

“Italy has more than 52,000 deaths per year caused by PM2.5 emissions, equal to a fifth of those recorded throughout the continent,” he said.

The main causes of air pollution in Italian cities are reported to be industry, inefficient domestic heating systems, agricultural practices and, most of all, heavy traffic.

In Italy, cars continue to be by far the most-used means of transport. 65.3 percent of journeys overall are made by car, Legambiante wrote, with the emissions from some 38 million cars choking Italy’s towns and cities.

(Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP)

Legambiente said “drastic” measures were required to tackle the problem, including funds for more efficient heating systems in homes and public buildings and a major increase in public transport provision.

The group said Italy must “quadruple the availability of public transit, promoting integrated season tickets as done by Germany in 2022”, triple the number of electric buses, create zero-emission zones in town centres, and “create another 16,000 kilometres of cycle paths”.

It also praised local authorities choosing to bring in 30 km/h speed limits in city centres. Councils in Bologna, Turin, Milan and Cesena have all said they plan to implement these limits, following the lead of European cities including Paris and Madrid, despite fierce criticism from Italian transport minister Matteo Salvini.

Legambiente published a petition urging the government to make clean air and more livable cities a priority, saying Italy should follow Paris in attempting to create ’15-minute cities’, in which everyone lives within a quarter of an hour’s walk of vital amenities such as shops and schools and possibly also workplaces.