Mexico City's Battle for Cleaner Air

By Nauman, Talli | Contemporary Review, November 2002 | Go to article overview

Mexico City's Battle for Cleaner Air


Nauman, Talli, Contemporary Review


THE heavily populated capital of Mexico, whose air is one of the smoggiest in the world, is set to become the first city with its own climate action programme. The ambitious 2002-2010 Valley of Mexico Metropolitan Area Air Quality Improvement Programme, nicknamed Proaire LU, will set a global precedent if it succeeds in its aim to reduce health expenditures through air quality management.

Some 35 per cent of Mexico City's 18 million residents suffer from air pollution. According to the Washington-based World Resources Institute, some 6400 people die of particulate pollution -- from road dust, diesel soot, wood smoke and metallic particles -- annually in the Mexico City metropolitan area.

'That message should be taken into account when international leaders seek consensus on the contentious issue of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming', says Victor Borja, an award-winning research scientist at the Mexican government Health Secretariat and co-author of a study into the problem. Controlling greenhouse gases will 'diminish the risk of respiratory or acute cardiovascular illnesses for people in areas where pollutants are most directly emitted, as well as improving their quality of life', Borja explains. He is part of a huge interdisciplinary team working on the Integrated Programme on Urban, Regional and Global Air Pollution, which was initiated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, in 1999 by chemists Luisa T. Molina and Mario Molina, a Mexico City native and Nobel laureate.

It was this team's research on Mexico City that provided the scientific basis for Proaire III -- constituting an expansion on two previous short-term Proaires. Proaire Ill calls for $14.7 billion of approximately equal parts of public and private investment in 89 projects to achieve reductions of 18 per cent in suspended particulates produced from car fuel, 16 per cent in sulphur dioxide, 26 per cent in carbon monoxide, 43 per cent in nitrogen dioxide and 17 per cent in hydrocarbons. 'Reduction of 10 per cent in particulates alone could lower the number of premature deaths in the metropolitan area by 2,000 a year', Mario Molina estimates.

Children are among the heaviest sufferers of air pollution. Antonio Estrada Gardufia, an 11-year-old asthma sufferer, learned at an early age how to vomit the phlegm that blocks his respiratory tubes when greenhouse gases in the local smog trigger an allergic reaction. His coughing bouts strike terror in his mother. 'It's not a normal fear. It's a really big fear that one has', says Rosa Maria Garduna. 'One can die from asphyxiation, get pneumonia, or drown trying to stick out their tongue'.

Sufferers like young Antonio could benefit from the government programme: achieving compliance with federal air quality standards for particulates and ozone will generate up to $4 billion worth of benefits annually in avoided deaths, illnesses, lost-time at work and associated expenses, Victor Boria says. …

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