July 11, 2006

Santiago’s Killer Smog is Getting Worse Again

By Fiona Ortiz

SANTIAGO, Chile -- Chile's capital, home to some of Latin America's foulest air, is losing ground in its battle against pollution after hard-won gains in the 1990s.

From 1990-2000 air pollution levels fell in Santiago as factories switched to cleaner fuels and belching old buses hit the scrap heap, helping improve a blight on what is otherwise one of the region's most livable urban areas.

Officials crowed that the metropolitan area, home to roughly 6 million people, had seen the end of pollution emergencies and so-called pre-emergencies that force cars off the street and shut down industrial plants.

"The government promised way too much, they never should have said that," said Rainer Schmitz, a chemical engineer at the University of Chile who advises the city on air quality and says it needs stricter standards.

Chile's economy is booming due to robust exports of copper, salmon and forestry products. But economic good times have aggravated pollution. Brand new superhighways crisscross Santiago and sales of cars -- the main pollution source in the capital -- have surged.

A recent international audit strongly criticized government cuts in financing for Santiago's clean-air program, saying government complacency was to blame for rising concentrations of harmful ozone and carbon monoxide since 2002.

Official numbers also show that in the last two years, levels of fine particles known as PM2.5 -- dangerous because they travel deep into the lungs -- have risen in several districts of Santiago and are well above international safe air standards.

"The smog is worse all the time and kids with allergies have a really bad reaction. You have to take them to the hospital every two weeks with pneumonia, bronchitis, laryngitis," said 39-year-old Jenny Lamey, a mother of three, carrying her coughing baby in the emergency room at San Borja hospital in Santiago.


Santiago's geography does not help matters. The city sits in a dusty, arid bowl up against the Andes, a wall of mountains that inhibit air circulation.

Low rainfall this year has aggravated air quality and since January Santiago officials have declared 14 alerts, when air pollution reaches the lower end of a potentially dangerous range, making 2006 the most polluted year since 2003.

The alerts force some older cars off the road to improve air quality, but even when the government's index shows air quality is good, concentrations of microparticles are high enough to cause premature deaths, said Andres Tchernitchin, a pathologist at the University of Chile.

Tchernitchin said studies show that mortality rates rise 10 percent even when the official air quality index is between 100-150, which is not high enough to set off an alert.

A 2001 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives estimated Santiago could prevent some 4,000 premature deaths between 2000 and 2020 by reducing levels of fine particles by 10 percent.

Even though pollution levels are still better than they were 10 years ago, Santiago is firmly stuck among Latin America's most polluted cities, along with Mexico City and Sao Paulo.

Experts say it will be expensive and painful for Santiago to further clean its air, since it already took the obvious, easy and economical measures.


"The easy fruit has been plucked. If we want to reproduce the improvements in bringing down emissions that we had at the beginning of the '90s the measures are a lot more painful, a lot more costly and would radically change how we live," said Ricardo Katz, manager of an environmental consulting firm.

Katz said poor people would bear the brunt of new measures such as prohibiting wood fires, which would eliminate the cheapest cooking and heating fuel, and stricter emissions standards for buses, which could lead to higher bus fares.

Public pressure for tougher anti-smog measures has mounted this year as local media have reported the deterioration in air quality and as Santiago heads into another winter of hospital emergency rooms filled with coughing children.

On a recent Saturday, Luis Mariano Rendon, a lawyer and ecologist, led a group of 20 to 40 bicyclists wearing surgical masks in a 12-hour bike ride in circles around the government palace in the heart of Santiago, to push for cleaner air.

"We need a cultural change. Santiago is not going to get rid of pollution just changing the type of filter or gas in the car, we have to de-pollute our culture," Rendon said.

Rendon -- who got a traffic ticket for using car lanes during the bicycle protest -- said the government has stimulated car use with new highways.


"The pollution level is unacceptable ... It's clear very little has been done ... it's clear that the (government's) only concrete measure is to pray for rain, and lots of it," said Gonzalo Uriarte, an opposition lawmaker.

Health officials and opposition politicians say the government is not spending enough to control pollution and center-left President Michelle Bachelet said she would earmark some of Chile's extraordinary income from high copper prices to finance the pollution battle.

At the hospital with her coughing child, Lamey recognized Santiago's geography is a major obstacle.

"I'm waiting for the country to do something, it seems like the only answer is to knock down the mountains," she said.

(additional reporting by Lorena Ormeno and Rodrigo Gutierrez)