Hungary's poor burn dangerous plastics to stay warm

Families in Hungary like this one are risking their own health to stay warm.

They’re burning plastic and rubber – creating a deadly smog.

It’s not only life threatening, it’s also illegal here.

But people do it anyway.

28-year-old Zoltan Berki usually wakes up before dawn as his five small children sleep next door,

to feed the old iron furnace, the only part of his house that he can afford to heat during winter.

[Sajonemeti resident, Zoltan Berki]

"If we were to buy the monthly amount of wood then we would have no money left for food. So I go to the forest, or the junkyard, and if we find plastic or rubber we burn that for fire. But not during the day or the neighbours can see, and you can also smell it. We throw the rubber and the plastic bottles and such things on at night."

Plastic bottles, cut-up tyres and window frames all work – even an old shoe suffices.

"It's not only us doing this, the neighbors here also use rubber and plastic to heat."

Berki's children all use inhalers to relieve asthma symptoms.

Berki’s father gets chest pain and coughs – but he helps to scavange materials, digging up leftover coal by hand

and logs from the old coal mine rail tracks which are infused with diesel.

[Zoltan Berki Sr.]

"They heat up very nicely. Often we do these things because we can't afford to buy anything."

"This is soaked with gasoline, it burns quite well. It smokes like hell and smells bad but I use it and others too because it burns nicely."

On a winter’s day – dense smoke spews from nearly every chimney, filling the narrow alleyways.

[Local Resident, Bela Varga]

"Inhaling it feels like carrying a tonne on your chest, you cannot straighten up from the weight. I am bent, I would like to breathe in the fresh air fully but I cannot."

It’s a wider problem and Hungarian environmental groups have been raising the alarm for years.

Scavenging for material to burn is common among the poorest communities in the Eastern European country

since Communist-era heavy industry vanished 30 years ago, leaving thousands jobless.

In the country of 10 million people, air pollution causes an annual 13,000 premature deaths, according to Clean Air project leader Judit Szego.

[Clean Air Action Group Representative, Judit Szego]

"Air pollution causes the death of 13,000 people per year. Nearly one million people's health is damaged, and nearly one million people thus need medical care because of this. Several hundred billion forints are spent on these damages from the country's budget."

The European Environmental Agency ranks Hungary third in Europe behind Bulgaria and Poland in health damage.

The EU Court of Justice has recently ruled that Hungary has breached pollution limits for over a decade.

Although the country has reduced its carbon emissions in the past decades,

pockets of high pollution like this persist, where pollution and poverty go hand-in-hand.

Video Transcript

- Families in Hungary like this one are risking their own health to stay warm. They're burning plastic and rubber, creating a deadly smog. It's not only life-threatening, it's also illegal here. But people do it anyway. 28-year-old Zoltan Burki usually wakes up before dawn, as his five small children sleep next door, to feed the old iron furnace, the only part of the house that he can afford to heat during winter.

ZOLTAN BERKI: If we were to buy the monthly amount of wood, then we would have no money left for food. So I go to the forest or the junkyard. And if we find plastic or rubber, we burn that for fire but not during the day, or the neighbors can see. And you can also smell it. We throw the rubber and the plastic bottles and such things on at night.

- Plastic bottles, cut up tires, and window frames all work. Even an old shoe suffices.

ZOLTAN BERKI: It's not only us doing this. The neighbors here also use rubber and plastic to heat.

- Berki's children all use inhalers to relieve asthma symptoms. Berki's father gets chest pains and coughs, but he helps to scavenge materials, digging up leftover coal by hand and logs from the old coal mine rail tracks, which are infused with diesel.

- They heat up very nicely. Often we do these things because we can't afford to buy anything. This is soaked with gasoline. It burns quite well. It smokes like hell and smells bad. But I use it, and others too, because it burns nicely.

- On a winter's day, dense smoke spews from nearly every chimney, filling the narrow alleyways.

- Inhaling it feels like carrying a ton on your chest. You cannot straighten up from the weight. I am bent. I would like to breathe in the fresh air fully, but I can't.

- It's a wider problem. And Hungarian environmental groups have been raising the alarm for years. Scavenging for material to burn is common among the poorest communities in the Eastern European country since communist-era heavy industry vanished 30 years ago, leaving thousands jobless. In the country of 10 million people, air pollution causes an annual 13,000 premature deaths, according to clean air project leader Judit Szego.

JUDIT SZEGO: Air pollution causes the death of 13,000 people per year. Nearly 1 million people's health is damaged. And nearly 1 million people thus need medical care because of this. Several hundred billion forints are spent on these damages from the country's budget.

- The European Environmental Agency ranks Hungary third in Europe behind Bulgaria and Poland in health damage. The EU Court of Justice has recently ruled that Hungary has breached pollution limits for over a decade. Although the country has reduced its carbon emissions in the past decades, pockets of high pollution like this persist, where pollution and poverty go hand in hand.