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Suburban sprawl pollutes Hungary

The rapid rise in commuter traffic to and from Budapest is creating Los Angeles-style smog.

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Smog: Pollution in Budapest, Hungary exceeded recommended levels 115 days last year. Most of it comes from car exhaust.

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Climb into the Buda Hills and look back at the flatlands of Pest and the pollution is obvious: a yellow-gray cloud that blankets the Hungarian capital much of the time.

Indeed, 19 years after the collapse of communism, Budapest's air quality has become a problem again. Pollution exceeded recommended levels 115 days last year, 80 days more than permitted under European Union (EU) guidelines. In late December and early January, the capital experienced one of its most prolonged smog events in a decade.

When communism imploded in 1989, Budapest's air was atrocious. With their two-cycle engines, fleets of Trabant automobiles spewed black clouds of lead-laden exhaust, while city busses and industrial facilities pumped eye-stinging emissions into the air. During the 1990s the air cleared as factories installed pollution controls, leaded gasoline was banned, and newer, cleaner Western cars replaced dirty Soviet ones.

But in recent years, those gains have been reversed as many Hungarians now drive to work from increasingly far-flung suburban areas. Lead and sulfur dioxide have been replaced by dangerous concentrations of tiny exhaust particles.

"We've exchanged [Victorian-era] London-type smog for Los Angles-type smog," laments Janos Zlinszky of the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe. "The nature of our environmental problems is shifting."

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