Air pollution tops news in Mexico City


By Peter Gellert

MEXICO CITY — Mexico city's air pollution crisis continues to occupy the attention of the 20 million inhabitants of the worlds's largest city.

In recent weeks, record-breaking ozone levels brought the issue to a head.

While the World Health Organisation recommends no more than several hours' exposure to 100-point levels during the course of an entire year, in 1991 levels above 200 were recorded during 300 days. This is 80% more than in 1990.

During February 1992, ozone levels soared above the 300 mark on three days out of 29. By comparison, during 1991, the 300 mark was broken on only eight days during the entire year. And now, a 398 reading has broken a new record.

City authorities suspended classes for preschool, elementary and high school students; industrial production was cut back by 50 to 70%; and, for a two-week period, 40% of private cars were banned from the streets.

Authorities present hourly ozone readings which are broadcast over radio, announced on large billboards and reported in the morning and afternoon press much like a stock market report or dire storm warnings.

In mid-March, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, ecology and urban development minister Patricio Chirinos and Mexico City Mayor Manuel Camacho Solis announced a series of long-term measures to address the problem. These include programs to equip industry with anti-pollution equipment and stringent verification programs, building new lines for the city's subway system and improving the quality of petrol.

While the measures have not been sufficient to end the crisis, Fernando Menendez, head of the Metropolitan Commission for the Prevention of Pollution, says they have prevented ozone from going above 400.

Authorities have announced that if ozone reaches 450 points, all activity in the city will come to a halt.

The conservative National Action Party charges that the government's plans deal with the results but not the causes of the problem, and that emphasis should be placed on decentralising industry. The centre-left Party of the Democratic Revolution has called for a broad civic front to fight the environmental crisis.

But university specialist Armando Baez told the prestigious Mexican political weekly Proceso that a serious campaign has barely begun and that results will not be seen soon.

"Private interests, corruption, indulgence, ineptitude and decisions more political than scientific have obstructed the fight against air pollution", he charges.

Researcher Dr Margarita Castillejos has studied the effect of ozone on school children in southern Mexico City.

She says there is an accumulated and long-term effect on children's lungs from continued exposure to ozone.

"It is clear that the quality of life, particularly in children, is drastically reduced. The damage, in terms of symptoms of respiratory ailments, will be obvious to authorities and society as a whole in the future", she said.

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