>Not an emergency, just a “pre-emergency”


View of Providencia from my 13th story apartment last winter. You can barely see the snow-capped Andes in the distance.

In Santiago, the air quality is notoriously bad. The city is nestled between the Andes Mountains and the Coastal Range, which means it sits down in a hole. Look out any upper story window in the winter (and to a lesser extent during the summer too) and you can see the smog. Fly into Santiago during the day and you can see as the plane descends through the smog layer.

Nice image, right?

The majority of pollution (around 70%) is caused by cars and it gets worse in the winter, because as we all learned in elementary school, hot air rises and therefore the smog layer rises as well. I guess this really isn’t an improvement, so to speak, but rather a movement of the problem away from our lungs. However, the good thing about winter is that it rains every once in a while and temporarily cleans the air. On days like these I always try to take really deep breaths and of course admire the snow covered Andes that once again come into view.

So what is the Chilean government doing to address this problem? Well, according to these posts, not enough. Chileno points out that as of two years ago, Chile was only measuring PM-10 particles, and that their ranges of “good” (0-100) were considered extremely dangerous in the U.S. Also, apparently Chile doesn’t measure for chemicals in the air.

If you take a look at El Mercurio’s pollution forecast, it looks like little has changed, at least in terms of what they report to the public. However, Chile’s official website This is Chile reported Monday that Santiago is investing money in buying new monitoring equipment. It doesn’t state whether this new equipment will measure chemicals or PM-2.5 particles. However, this opinion piece from La Tercera mentions that a new normative to measure PM-2.5 particles has been passed.

The main measure that the government takes to address the pollution problem is vehicular restriction (restricción vehicular in Spanish). On days that the PM-10 particles reach more than 200, the government declares a pre-emergencia ambiental (environmental pre-emergency), and restricts vehicles (depending on the last digit of their license plate) from driving between the hours of 7:30am-10:00pm. For vehicles that don’t have a catalytic converters, there is a rotating schedule during the winter for when they can be driven, regardless of pollution levels. Also on pre-emergency days it is not recommendable to do exercise outside.

Is this enough? I don’t think so. I’m not sure what the solution is, but one thing that makes me especially angry is when I see people driving in their big car by themselves on they way to work. Carpooling is fun and good for the environment. I think the government (or someone) needs to start measuring the chemicals in the air and create stricter standards for what is considered “good” and “bad” air quality.

I can tell you from personal experience that there are days (like today) that are considered “good” and I walk outside and immediately my eyes start stinging and my throat gets scratchy. My skin has also gotten worse since I’ve moved here, and while I’m not 100% sure that the air quality is to blame, I bet it has something to do with it. And my problems are trivial when you think about the children who end up in the hospital with lung problems.


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