Albion Monitor /News

Pollution Crisis Shuts Down Chile Capital

by Gustavo Gonzalez

Longest crisis in the city's history
(IPS) SANTIAGO -- The state of environmental pre-emergency in effect for six days late July in the Chilean capital was finally eased on July 29. But the crisis, the longest in the city's history, triggered a heated debate on anti-pollution standards and measures.

Although the crisis pushed the government to adopt more stringent anti-pollution standards, the Medical Association, parliamentarians and environmentalists remained unsatisfied.

A group of lawmakers announced that they would organize a mass demonstration for clean air in Santiago, similar to protests staged in June 1996. The "green" legislators also said they would take legal action to demand more effective measures for protecting Santiago residents.

Hospitals provided emergency care to around 10,000 children
The capital of Chile, a city of five million ringed by mountains, is one of Latin America's most heavily polluted cities. The normal winter ban which prohibits the movement of 20 percent of all vehicles -- those without catalytic converters which use leaded gas -- was reestablished today, after its expansion to 60 percent since July 25. (Some 280,000 of Santiago's total 400,000 vehicles use unleaded gas).

The roughly 90 sources of emissions of toxic gases, including industrial boilers, incinerators, and heating equipment which had been shut down, were also authorized to renew their activity.

Primary schools and preschools remained closed in an effort to prevent the outbreak of an epidemic of viral respiratory infections. High air pollution levels fuel the spread of bronchitis, pneumonia, and other such ailments, as was demonstrated during the crisis when public children's hospitals provided emergency care to around 10,000 minors.

Associations of doctors and educators urged the government to close secondary schools as well.

The pre-emergency measures were lifted after air quality measuring stations throughout the capital registered pollution levels below 100. In accordance with the new guidelines put into effect on July 25 by the government of Eduardo Frei, the city will be put on "environmental alert" when a level of 200 is registered, with a circulation ban on 40 percent of vehicles using leaded gas.

The pollution level refers to the number of micrograms of contaminating particles per cubic meter of air. Air quality is considered "good" up to a level of 100 -- in other words, up to 150 particles per cubic meter.

Air pollution has been measured in Santiago since the mid-1980s. A level of 500 -- or 330 particles per cubic meter of air -- which would trigger the most drastic emergency measures, has never been registered.

The tougher standards adopted by the government last week kept the pre-emergency level at 300 to 400, but expanded the ban on circulation of vehicles using leaded gas to 60 percent.

Proposed toll roads would give wealthy a "license to pollute"
The mayor of the metropolitan region, German Quintana, warned that pollution could rise again with the return to normal levels of traffic and the renewal of industrial activity.

Doctors and ecologists are pressing for Chile to adopt standards applied in industrialized countries, where pre-emergency measures kick in at an air pollution level of 200. They criticized the creation of a state of "environmental alert" as a stopgap measure.

Enrique Accorsi, president of the Medical Association, called the norms adopted last week "tame."

Sara Larrain with the National Network of Ecological Action, and Manuel Baquedano at the Institute of Political Ecology, are pressing for a long-term anti-pollution strategy that would take into account the free market model's negative impact on the environment. They say the government should take steps towards decentralizing industrial activity in Chile, and adopt effective measures towards discouraging and rationalizing the use of automobiles, and promoting an efficient and environment-friendly mass transit system.

"Green" lawmakers from a range of parties criticized the government's decision to set up a system of toll-booths to tax the use of certain avenues and streets by private automobiles. The deputies argue that rather than fighting pollution, the system would give higher-income sectors -- people who can afford to pay the tolls -- a "license to pollute."

The legislators also say the ban on circulation of cars using leaded gas punishes lower income sectors, who cannot afford to buy new cars with catalytic converters.

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Albion Monitor August 4, 1997 (

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