Pollution in Italy: Health Hazards to Be Aware Of

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Italy's a beautiful country, and you can be moved to tears by the landscape, the food, the wine, and the art. But there are Italian cities which take your breath away in other ways.


Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence Photo © iStock/benkrut

Dream of Italy and you’ll most likely be conjuring the rolling Tuscan hills, its pristine Alpine villages and the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, but sometimes the reality is a little different. In August and September, the influx of travelers increases the amount of waste produced by at least a third, and the country’s tourism industry has a huge impact on all kinds of pollution, all year round, be it plastic waste or emissions from cars, heating and air-con. What are the country’s environmental hazards and what can a responsible traveler do to help?

Air quality in Italy
Use a refillable drinking bottle in Italy
Beach quality in Italy
Zero waste stays in Italy
No smoking in Italy

You might not equate smog with Italy, but the country’s north often has air pollution levels that are considered ‘moderately unsafe’ by the WHO, though actually represent some of Europe’s most dangerous. The natural propensity of the Po Valley’s mountain framed basin to trap a deep blanket of fog from Turin and Milan to Padua and Verona and at times, even, the Venetian lagoon, has long been blamed for the north’s shocking winter air quality. But the region’s heavy industry, its reliance on cars and the toll of winter heating are in fact equal contributors to the problem.

If you’re seriously prone to respiratory problems, try to spend minimal time in these those low-lying northern cities in the colder months. You don’t need to skip winter in Italy all together though – instead head to Bolzano or Trento whose geographical setting and environmental initiatives see them as some of the country’s least polluted, or winter in Sardinia or the far south coast of Puglia. Check online sources such as IQAir  or the World Air Quality Index for real time particulate indexes. And, if you want to do your bit to ease the problem, travel by train rather than car when you can.

Use a refillable water bottle in Italy

Italians, like most of their European neighbors, have long equated bottled water with ‘health’, due to an antiquated suspicion of local water supplies, a dislike of the taste of their admittedly hard water and in some mountainous areas, an affection for their particular locally-sourced waters. But the 21st-century perfect storm of an affluent supermarket-going population and huge numbers of tourists has made the sheer scale of discarded bottles a national blight.

The most environmentally precarious tourist hubs such as Venice, the Cinque Terre and many of the country’s Mediterranean islands have attempted to ban the use of plastic bottles for the last 10 years, with various degrees of compliance. What can you do to help? When out and about, use a reusable water bottle and keep a lookout for traditional street fontanella, or modern filling stations which offer either spring or sparkling for a few euro cents a litre. At restaurants, don’t be afraid to say no to the bottle, especially if they are individually sized, and insist on acqua di rubinetto, tap water instead. This was once considered rude, but some places now even offer their own filtered or fizzed water in carafes, usually for just a nominal charge.

Beach quality in Italy

A shoulder season beach holiday to beat the crowds might be a smart idea, but once the crowds have gone home, the Italian coast can sometimes come as a shock. Sandy stretches may only be tended in summer time, when they are given over to the beach clubs that rent loungers and umbrellas, and for the rest of the year are strewn with not just driftwood but mounds of plastic and other rubbish.

Good news though: some of Italy’s most beloved seaside destinations, including Capri, Sardinia and Puglia, have at least banned single use plastics, such as cutlery and straws, and there is an increasing awareness of beach cleanliness. Blue Flag, an international organization that gives a tick to beaches who pass a number of environmental standards, including water quality and beach cleanliness as well as accessibility, includes beaches along all Italy’s coastlines in their recommendations. Which region tops the list? Liguria, Italy’s pretty slice of Riviera.

Zero-waste stays in Italy

With microplastics now present in Italy’s glaciers, one resort, Pejo 300, in the Stelvio National Park in Trentino, has gone zero-waste, banning all plastics, including ski pass covers, along with straws, bottles, cutlery and even packets of sauce and mayo.

Hybrid snowcats are in the works, and the resort is fuelled by hydroelectric plants and sustainable forest offcuts. When choosing Italian winter resorts, research their sustainability efforts, and also look into Nordic skiing, snowshoeing and ice climbing to minimize your own impact.

No smoking in Italy

Italy has long a reputation for being a nation of smokers, but it’s most recent smoking rates are far less than many of its European neighbors and only a few percent more than the US. It can still be common to encounter smoking in the terraces of bars and restaurants as well as beaches, plus compliance with anti-smoking laws can be lax in southern regions such as Campania and Calabria.

Italy was one of Europe’s anti-smoking pioneers, with bans in bars and restaurants in place since the mid 2000s. These are being extended in the north, with smoking banned entirely in Milan and Florence’s outdoors, in parks and gardens in Bolzano and Verona, and plans to ban it in Venice’s center.

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  • Marco said

    Really generic view of Italy: pollution is a problem in big cities, but it is not much different than other major cities in Europe. For tourists this is not even a problem as all major tourist destinations are small cities so lower pollution (apart from Rome I guess).<br><br>The sea is clear pretty much everywhere and it is only polluted near major ports as it would be in every port in Europe. <br><br>So not completely sure about the description of Italy above


  • safetyhub said

    Marco, pollution is a problem everywhere, very true. The point is, not everyone expects pollution in Italy, it's image (to many visitors) is that it's all Tuscan villas and vineyards, (of course much of it is) but like other big tourist drawcards such as London, or Paris the romantic-sounding cities of Florence and Milan have their problems too ...and those with respiratory problems ought to be prepared.<br>Hard cold fact, when you look at a list of badly polluted European cities, Milan is right up there.<br>Here's a quote from a Popular Science article: "according to a study by Italian environmental group Legambiente, Milan has more smog than any other city in Europe and the continent’s second-highest level of ozone."<br>Lots of great reasons to visit Milan, just watch out for the air quality.<br>Phil<br>


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  • Fee berry said

    My mother recently spent a few days in Italy with my sister, and she certainly had breathing problems. The pollution is noticeably worse than the UK and anyone with asthma or COPD would do well to take advice before travelling there.


  • Morlette Cowan said

    I just got here in Milan last night and woke up with a sore throat and hay-fever. I opened the window thinking the air inside was too dense. I woke up two hours later with what I thought was a full-cold. Sneezing, red eyes etc. My sister joined me from the UK the next day, and brought me pain and flu pills. Within three hours of trying to sleep, she also started to have the same symptoms as I. We began to feel there was something wrong with the air... it just did not feel right almost dense.

    With the ac on full blast we are just beginning to feel better. Glad I saw this.


  • Rick said

    This is sadly, very true of Italian cities. Do not live there, it will take years off your life. In Rome you can taste how filthy the air is and it feels like breathing thick pea soup.

    The Italian love affair with the Scooter is one of the main problems. The average household of two parents and two kids will own two cars and two to four scooters.

    This is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dangers in Italy. While there I noticed that motorway bridges seem corroded, degraded and perilously close to collapse. Since leaving the country in August 2016, two have collapsed on motorways.

    This country really is falling apart and should be avoided by sane, civilised people. Leave it to the Italians.


  • David said

    Rick, how ignorant are you? Ahaha. You seems also a little bit jealous. You went to one city and you think you know the whole Italy? Ridiculous. You are the classic ignorant foreigner that visit the stupidest city! Learn something about history, art, food, hygiene, languages, and then start to travel. Ignorant


  • John said

    Very true David.

    I just got in Milan, and no problem at all. Yes, the air is not the cleanest, but definitely not a nightmare. I went in other cities in Europe, and it seemed worse. But in Italy. Well.. They can offer you many other things to make them forgiven for air quality :-) I love Italy, and there is nothing similar around the globe.

    And if you avoid the big cities, it gets better. And you can't say to know what food is or what a great sea looks like or a landscape until you don't go in Italy. Sorry, the plain truth (and I visited also France).


  • stevieb said

    I've just come back from Naples and thought it was disgusting. If the Mafia are responsible for waste dumping they should be even more ashamed of themselves. What happened to civic pride? - it's a pigsty.


  • mememaster06 said

    i've never been to italy but i mean if the air is thicc like pea soup then im in :^))


  • Keith Rashall said

    For the past three years I've spent winters in Italy.
    One thing I've noticed is that even though many cars and trucks are diesel and there are so many 2 strokes, the air does not smell of diesel and 2 sroke exhaust.
    Why is that.


  • W said

    Dear all,

    I think that the majority just visited a couple of cities in Italy, I lived in many countries all over the globe and surely Italy has a lot of work to do for the cities but at least Italy has so much to offer about history, art, traditions, food, fashion, and so on. You need to visit many more parts of the country before judging.
    Italy is a various country, Milan might be full of pollution and the surrounding areas as well because its an industrial area, but the rest of the country has a lot of uncontaminated green areas with mountain streams with drinkable water , smaller livable cities and lots of beaches and places totally free of industries. It has to be considered the whole area not the big cities only. There are lots of treasures to be discovered.


  • Mike said

    Davvero, David!
    Having lived in LA before its air was cleaned up, though, I know what serious smog looks, smells, tastes, and feels like - and I've noticed it every time I've visited Milano and Torino in the spring and fall. It's palpable, and it's really a shame that Italy isn't doing more about it. The entire Po Valley, including its highlands like Bergamo, is affected, and it's not pretty. Trieste and Genova, OTOH, have good air, though the ports there need to rein in pollution from ships, which is visible, especially in La Superba. I'm coming around to the view that those are the places where I'll be spending more time when I next visit Italy next spring. Too bad, because I really do love ALL of Italy, and Italians, too.


  • Margo said

    I've been to poor and rich countries in every continent in the world, and for me Italy's problem is their inability to deal with their day to day garbage.

    Who wants to come to a country (or city) in almost 2020 and the local people and the government have no respect for the land, the people, or those who come to visit and spend their money and have not conquered how to deal with garbage when most 3rd world countries can do this.




  • Randith said

    My son just landed in Milan to study for four months. I hope the air quality is acceptable this time of year and that the brand new apt bldg he will be living in has good filtration. He will not let the air quality slow him down. Thanks for the info from all.


  • Flavio Berthoud said

    If the Italian Government is interested in reducing 60%, or more, the emission of PM and Pollutant Gases that the industrial process generates when using all kind of fossil fuels, like oil, gas, coal and iron ore, it should contact who has the technology *Selective Switching* that allows this reduction.

    Selective Switching technology - current scenario.

    * Performing the 1st Upgrade in an industrial ESP installed in Vitória/ES - Brasil, with partial conclusion scheduled for October / 2018. This will enable to be certified the effectiveness of the technology.

    * This ESP Upgrade will allow to retain 100% of PM 0.1 micron to PM 10 micron which is currently not retained. The mass of particulate that will be retained represents 60% of all current pollution released into the atmosphere.

    * Parallel to this, it is being initiated the construction of the 1st ESP containing the Selective Switching technology, which will be the ESP-SS.

    * Is under evaluation the use of an device, the ACI - Activated Carbon Injector - that will be installed in the ESP-SS, transforming it into the industrial filter to be called ESP-SS/ACI.

    * This ESP-SS/ACI, able to filter and retain 100% of PM 0.1 micron to PM 10 micron, will also be capable of filtering and retaining an immense amount of Gases produced in industrial processes, which today require retention systems of post-treatment, usually complex and very expensive.

    * In a 2nd stage, only possible in 2/3 years, with the improvement of Relay LP 100 KV, the ESP-SS/ACI will be able to retain 95% of the total of the current mass of PMs released into the atmosphere, since PMs less than 0.1 microns will also be withheld.

    * In this 2nd stage will be possible, also, the filtering and retention of 98% of all types of gases generated in industrial processes.

    * Several industries that use fossil fuels are in permanent contact with Company TCS Ltda, holder of the SS Patent, attentive the conclusion of the 1st Upgrade.


  • Jill McGannon said

    I love Italy, having spent two summers there in the 80's and 90's. We just got back from a two week trip and the air quality in Florence made me feel very very weak and tired. I read in a comment above about the bridges collapsing, and another bridge collapsed today in Genoa. Tuscany, lake Como, and Cinque Terre, while quite touristy in places, are really beautiful, nice, and not polluted. At least I didn't feel sick when I was there.


  • teresa said

    I met a man today who said he lived in Northern Italy for 14 years. He said he developed an allergy to honey and chocolate due to the air pollution and that this is very common in Italy. How can this be?


  • Mike said

    Go to Austria and Switzerland its cleaner and more classy


  • Ernesto Iadanza said

    Florence is absolutely not a top offender, being one of the cities with less pollution in 2018, according to these data: https://www.thelocal.it/20190122/these-are-the-55-most-polluted-towns-in-italy

    Please provide the source for your sentence “ Florence is a top offender, with the worst air pollution of any Italian city“ or just delete it


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