Parisians deal daily with high levels of air pollution thanks to a number of factors, a population favoring diesel cars included. In the spring of 2015, Paris briefly topped the world charts for air pollution, putting it above regular offenders such as Delhi and Peking. On the ground, a national pastime of cigarette smoking and lime buildup from water are two issues newcomers face.

Air Quality

Each year in France, 11 million tons of pollutants are pumped into the air from cars, factories, agriculture, and people living their day-to-day lives. This fact is particularly noticeable when you’re stuck on your bicycle behind a two-stroke motorbike at a stoplight. In some ways, Paris looks like a developing nation when it comes to the color and quantities flowing out of auto exhaust pipes. Your health can be affected by all that pollution, both out in the streets and in your home. To see what the pollution levels are like in your town, visit In Paris and Bordeaux, the levels can look scary-high from time to time. Many city dwellers in France take the extra precautionary step of purchasing an air filter; try Darty if you live on a particularly busy street or near a freeway on-ramp, where pollution levels are particularly high.

Fog and smog obscure the Paris skyline.

Fog and smog obscure the Paris skyline. Photo © Damián Bakarcic, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.


Though the café smoking ban went into effect way back in 2008, France’s addiction to “cancer sticks” still clings like tar to an old Gauloises fan’s lungs. Where else will you find a pregnant mother-to-be puffing her hand-rolled cigarette, with nary a glance of disapproval from passersby? The good news is that the rates of stroke and heart attack have plummeted since the ban; the bad news is that it’s still too late for too many. Lung cancer kills more people in France than any other type of cancer. Bad habits are hard to break, and that’s particularly evident in the outdoor seating section of cafés, which tend to take on the air of a smoker’s convention in wintertime when the heat lamps are activated and the plastic walls go up to keep the cold out. Smoking is no longer legal in public places, including office buildings, hospitals, museums, and school campuses, but that doesn’t mean everyone adheres to the law. Enforcement has been rather lax, and business owners are reluctant to ask clients to stub out their cigs if no one has lodged a complaint. If you’re sensitive to cigarette smoke, avoid enclosed terraces at cafés and brasseries, and count your blessings that you didn’t decide to move to France before 2008.

Up in E-smoke

Smoking, that most beloved of French traditions, is on its way out. In its place? More smoking! E-smoking, that is. Touted as a harmless bridge between full-fledged addiction and absolute cessation, e-cigarettes offer the nicotine buzz without the toxic, lung-damaging smoke, according to the people selling them.

Seemingly overnight, e-cigarette shops by the dozens have hatched in every arrondissement of Paris, selling the hope of a life free from addiction, chronic coughs, emphysema, and worse for between €36 and €100. For France’s 15 million smokers, this is a godsend. For your money, you get one battery-operated device in the color of your choice, plus a replaceable liquid-nicotine cartridge. Vapoteuses and vapoteurs throughout the capital swear by its efficacy, but French health experts are already issuing warnings about potentially detrimental long-term effects, and in more bad news, Health Minister Marisol Touraine wants the e-cigarette classified as a drug, which would mean a “smoking” ban similar to the one instituted in New York City that makes it illegal to puff away in indoor public places.

Water Quality

Those who don’t need fancy water (or who don’t want to contribute more plastic to the waste-stream) will be glad to know that tap water is safe throughout France.The French are known for their love of bottled water, consuming 40 gallons of it per person per year. Stroll down the aisle at the nearest hypermarché, and you’ll find yourself in a sea of drinking water. Do you like yours flat or still? Loaded with minerals or not? Are you on a diet? There’s a bottled-water variety to help you through. Those who don’t need fancy water (or who don’t want to contribute more plastic to the waste-stream) will be glad to know that tap water is safe throughout France, though it tends to have a very high lime content, which leaves a flaky white residue on glasses, in your sink, and in your tabletop water-filter pitcher. This necessitates the purchase of products that eliminate the funky buildup in your appliances, such as electric kettles and dishwashers.

Public fountains are common throughout Paris—they’re often green, and if it’s a Wallace fountain, designed by 19th-century French sculptor Charles-Auguste Lebourg, it might even look like a piece of art. Potable water is available in public fountains, and numerous filter options are available for those who want to lessen the limestone content in their glasses. Around the Alps and Pyrénées, it’s not uncommon to see cars pulled over on the side of the road, with a line of people bearing water bottles to be filled at natural springs.

People filling bottles and drinking at a public water fountain in Paris, France.

Locals and tourists alike take advantage of a public drinking fountain on a hot Paris day. Photo © Francis Dean/123rf.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Living Abroad Paris.