Smog chokes Santiago de Chile

Smog chokes Santiago de Chile

By Arnaldo Pérez Guerra

An investigation by the Federico Santa María University (UFSM) revealed that the concentration of dangerous particles in Santiago - polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) - is 20 times higher than the norm allowed in Chile.

Air pollution has not decreased in the last five years. The policies implemented have failed. In addition, the information is manipulated to make us believe that the problem is not that serious. "Last year it was said that the situation had improved, based only on the decrease in critical episodes. The objective was to show some 'achievement' in environmental matters. In fact, if only the evolution of the annual average of PM10 particulate matter is analyzed -pollutant used to issue alerts, pre-emergencies and emergencies-, between 2000 and 2005, it far exceeds the national standard for this pollutant. An audit of the Environmental Prevention and Decontamination Plan, carried out by specialists, yielded alarming results. Since 2000 there have been no progress, that is to say, the air is still just as dirty, "says Paola Vasconi, from the Terram Foundation.

Pollution in the capital is structural. The Santiago basin does not support further expansion or greater economic activity. The concentration of smog and particulate matter increases as the basin has poor ventilation that will worsen when it is built at the Lo Cerrillos Airport. There are other factors that could be modified. Of the 800,000 vehicles that circulate in Santiago, more than 85 percent are private. In 10 years, the use of public transportation has decreased by 30 percent, while trips in private vehicles increased by 106 percent. Only 42 percent of Santiaguinos travel by bus. To this is added that the necessary measures are not implemented to drastically reduce pollution, and many of these are completely opposed.

The indiscriminate construction of highways has encouraged an increase in the automotive fleet. Hand in hand with the market, green areas are decreasing and agricultural land continues to be deactivated for real estate purposes. The city is expanding more and more and the trips to cross from one point to another are increasingly long.

Manipulated information

For the government, the Prevention and Atmospheric Decontamination Plan (PPDA), in force since 1998 and updated in 2004, has been a success since episodes of environmental emergencies, pre-emergencies and alerts have been reduced by 100, 95 and 81 percent, respectively. Official figures speak of a lower concentration of PM10 and PM2.5 particles. 27 and 58 percent less from 1990 to date. In addition, leaded gasoline was eliminated, sulfur in diesel was reduced by 95 percent, the Metro networks were doubled and more than 180 kilometers of highways were built. According to the authorities of 153 proposed measures, 84 were fulfilled, 32 presented progress and 29 have not been applied. Of 8 of them there is simply no information.

But environmental and health specialists agree that the information has been manipulated. An audit carried out by experts from the US and Chile, who evaluated the 153 measures to combat environmental pollution, warns that the introduction of natural gas for the industry and the Transantiago Plan have not worked as expected. Air quality has not improved since 2000, and particulate matter, ozone, and carbon monoxide increased in recent years. PM10 exceeds the national standard by 75 percent, while carbon monoxide exceeds the allowable by 80 percent. There is still no standard that regulates the finest particulate matter and hazardous to health: PM 2.5. No improvement is recorded in the reduction of industrial emissions. The companies that use diesel equipment to generate electricity are not registered and are estimated at 10,000 in Santiago alone. 45 inspectors supervise 4,000 companies in the Metropolitan Region, only once a year, on average. There are no indicators to assess the impact of smog on the health of the population. And the list goes on.

Andrei Tchernitchin, president of the health and environment department of the Medical College, warns: "One of the objectives of the Decontamination Plan is to protect the health of the population. But the Macam II network, which is made up of stations that measure air quality, It is increasingly precarious. Half of its equipment does not measure certain toxic agents. New stations have not been installed and there is a lack of equipment in the southern, eastern and northern sectors of the capital. In addition, the systems do not have adequate maintenance and that puts in doubt the veracity and quality of the measurements ". According to Sara Larraín, director of Sustainable Chile, they have been requesting that the standard on PM2.5 be included for years, without results: "Conama does not have information on the impacts of emissions on health, which reveals a serious irresponsibility in the device public, which prevents political and budgetary prioritization of environmental protection and the health of the population ". Tchernitchin proposes that information be delivered online and every hour on the levels of contamination by commune or area where measurements are made: "This would allow warning people at greater risk such as the elderly, patients with heart disease and children about the episodes of contamination and, thus The risk of developing some physical activity in Providencia for one hour -when the maximum airborne concentration of particulate matter occurs-, around noon, is double the risk of sleeping during the four hours of night peak of pollution in Pudahuel ".

Hazards of smog and ozone

Since 2000, the anti-smog budget has been reduced. The National Center for the Environment (Cenma), which manages the predictive model, has operated for 5 years with a 70 percent less budget. The updating and maintenance of the monitoring station network has not been done. According to the audit conducted by the PPDA, Santiago exceeds the Chilean PM10 standard by 75 percent, the carbon monoxide standard by 80 percent, and doubles the ozone limit established by the authorities. The more smog increases the care of children and the elderly in clinics and hospitals 24 hours after critical days. The most serious occurs when the peak of contamination coincides with the winter cold and respiratory viruses. The same thing happens every year.

An investigation by the Federico Santa María University (UFSM) revealed that the concentration of dangerous particles in Santiago - polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) - is 20 times higher than the norm allowed in Chile. According to Tchernitchin, smog and these particles, which are not monitored by the authorities, cause lung, lymphatic, bladder and breast cancer, as well as mutations, infertility and delayed sexual maturation in adolescents. The probability that Chileans develop cancer from this cause rises up to 900 cases per year. The UFSM measured these compounds in Temuco (1998) and Santiago (2001): the concentration was 9,850 and 330 times higher than that recommended by the WHO.

But smog is not the only danger. Santiago is among the ten cities with the highest ozone index in the world. We maintain the sad record of more than 150 days a year of harmful concentrations of ozone, which inflames the airways and can decrease our lung capacity. Ozone causes irritation of the respiratory tract, cough, chest and headache pain, nausea and asthma. According to Manuel Merino, director of Cenma: "In 60 percent of the days between October and April, the permitted levels of ozone are exceeded, while in summer it reaches 80 percent. In 2002, The Lancet magazine published a study showing that children who practice physical activities outdoors in ozone-polluted areas are three to four times more likely to develop asthma ". In our country asthma has doubled from 1994 to 2002, and the days when ozone increases, there is a greater number of consultations for obstructive bronchitis and asthma in the health services. The government recognizes that there are no funds - 120 million pesos are missing - for Conama to complete eleven studies committed to in the PPDA that should have been carried out last year.

It will never happen again

Smog levels are critical in communes such as Pudahuel and Cerro Navia, but authorities have not issued an environmental alert on several occasions despite the indices indicating so. The population has been exposed to high levels of particulate matter, which is hazardous to health. The metropolitan mayor Víctor Barrueto, had to admit his mistake for not having decreed the environmental alert: "Never again, this will not happen again. I promise to decree the necessary alerts to protect the health of the population, even when there are technical doubts in the prognosis and despite the foreseen episode does not take place, "he said shortly after taking office. He also announced that he will request resources to improve Conama's oversight work and that he hopes that the Bachelet government will solve this problem by setting up a Ministry of the Environment.

The Environment Commission of the Chamber of Deputies summoned the Minister Secretary General of the Presidency, Paulina Veloso, and Mayor Barrueto, to "explain the state of the decontamination policy in Santiago." Although the air pollution prediction model called the neural system - created by researchers from the Department of Physics of the Usach - obtains greater accuracy in its forecasts, the government continues to apply the Cassmassi model. Both were between April and August 2004: Neural scored 92 percent correct against 85 percent for Cassmassi. "That neuronal is only a support model and not the main one is a decision that is beyond our hands," say the Usach researchers. If there is no political decision, things will not change. Some only propose increasing the vehicle restriction digits. Following the trend of the first month of Bachelet's government, the government created an advisory council that should issue a report in a few more months. Regional authorities, health and transport, academics, businessmen and environmental experts will participate, who must recommend measures.

"The solution is in an integral management in Santiago. What does this mean? Advance towards an institutional reform, so that a single entity is the one that administers and manages the Decontamination Plan. Reduce the population in Santiago and its current levels of activity as well as the growing horizontal expansion of the city and the consequent distancing between homes and work, among others. Only with structural measures will it be possible to reduce pollution. Otherwise, year after year we will continue to experience environmental crises due to the quality of the air ", concludes Paola Vasconi.

1. The most serious occurs when the peak of contamination coincides with the winter cold and respiratory viruses. The same thing happens every year.
2. The indiscriminate construction of highways has encouraged the increase in the automotive fleet.

* Arnaldo Pérez Guerra

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