The Smog Eating Church of Rome

A Special Pollution-Resistant Cement Used to Build an Italian Church Actually Removes Toxins From the Air, Startled Authorities Discovered

By MARTIN SEEMUNGAL

ROME, Nov. 29, 2006—

Behold! The smog eating church of Rome -- The Dio Padre Misericordioso, is a dramatic white church, designed by noted American architect Richard Meier, to look like a ship, complete with enormous billowing sails. Critics say it exudes tranquillity, which is exactly what the Vatican wanted in a church to mark the 2,000th year of Christianity.

But behind that peaceful facade, it turns out, there lies a formidable pollutant buster. Its all in the cement.

Titanium dioxide particles were added to the cement as the church was being built to ensure it stayed white, and clean, by resisting Rome's notorious smog.

But then the company that made the cement for the church made a startling discovery. "As research went on we discovered it destroyed pollutants in the air, " said Enrico Borgarello, the director of research and development at Italcementi. He calls it is an extremely significant step as the world grapples with global warming.

Borgarello says when the titanium dioxide absorbs ultraviolet light, it becomes powerfully reactive, breaking down pollutants that come in contact with the concrete. It is particularly good at attacking the noxious gases that come out of a cars exhaust pipe.

As for Richar Meier, the architect, he says he would like to see the technology used elsewhere: "I would be happy to create something like this in Los Angeles. L.A. is certainly a city that could use it, " He told ABC News.

So do people notice any difference? Dio Padre Misericordioso church sits in a quiet, non-descript neighbourhood on the Eastern outskirts of Rome -- no ancient cobbled piazzas here, no hint of the incredible depth of history just a few miles away in the center of the city. In fact, the church is sandwiched between two mundane 40-year old apartment blocks.

People in the neighborhood appear used to this architectural anomaly that appeared in their midst three years ago. They hang laundry from nearby balconies, push baby carriages on the street in front. Jog through the park at the back of the church.

One man, who called himself Guiseppe, who lives in the apartment block, was dutifully filling one of the recycling bins, when ABC News asked him if the air seemed cleaner. He smirked: "it would be impossible to beat Romes pollution, there are too many cars," he said.

Another woman was clearly impressed with the beautiful church as she walked past, but said she knew nothing about the church's power to keep itself and the nearby environment cleaner.

Even some environmental experts remain sceptical and wonder if the special material can 'eat' enough pollutants to make it financially viable.

The people at Italcementi are confident that their product works and they've run a series of tests to prove it. In the town of Segrate, near Milan, the cement based compound was tested on a highly travelled road. Levels of nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide were cut by as much as 65 percent, they claim.

Italcementi's Borgarello said their research shows that: "In Milan if you just use the material in 15 per cent of the surface of the city you can reduce by 50 percent the pollution."

If true it would indeed be a breakthrough. Italy's heavily populated cities like Rome and Milan frequently suffer from extremely high levels of pollution. Authorities are sometimes forced to restrict the number of vehicles on the road.

And of course pollution knows no limits.

Questions have also been raised about the cost of this. Alcementi says its not prohibitively expensive. Borgarello says their product, called 'TX Active' is only 15 per cent more expensive than using regular materials.

Three years after the Church in Rome opened its still very white. On closer examination, you can see filmy streaks of grey and brown, but Borgarello says that's just Sahara sand blown in by the notorious Scirocco wind. "it comes off with a little water" he says.