Chilean capital in pollution emergency

Temuco, one of the most polluted cities in Chile. High levels of pollution forced the Chilean authorities to declare an environmental emergency in the Santiago area yesterday.
Temuco, one of the most polluted cities in Chile. High levels of pollution forced the Chilean authorities to declare an environmental emergency in the Santiago area yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Santiago area takes 24-hour breather as cars, factories come to a halt

SANTIAGO - Chile yesterday declared an environmental emergency for the Santiago metropolitan region, forcing industries to temporarily shut down and about 40 per cent of the capital's 1.7 million cars off the roads.

"We're facing unusual conditions, with one of the driest Junes in over 40 years, as well as really bad air circulation conditions in the Santiago valley in recent days, which boosts the concentration of contamination," the Environment Ministry said in a statement.

The emergency, the first since 1999, was to be in place for 24 hours from yesterday and can be extended if the authorities decide conditions have not improved.

The emergency status - the highest level alert allowed - is triggered when the air quality index, considered good from 0-50, reaches hazardous levels as it tops 500.

The move by Santiago regional governor Claudio Orrego also means 3,000 factories and other businesses had to shut down in the capital area, home to 6.7 million people.

Student sports were to be put on hold and public bus-only lanes were opened on local roads under the measures.

People in the Santiago area were advised to avoid outdoor exercise, though such activity was not prohibited.

Chile is in the midst of hosting the Copa America soccer tournament and the capital is one of the main venues.

The next game is scheduled for tomorrow. The regional federation does not allow matches to be cancelled because of air quality.

A lack of rain and winds has allowed concentrations of small breathable particulate matter known as PM2.5 to build up, shrouding the city in smog.

These fine particles can travel through the respiratory tract into the lungs, causing short-term health effects such as lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath.

Long-term exposure to PM2.5 is linked to higher rates of chronic bronchitis and reduced lung function as well as an increased risk of heart disease.

Cold temperatures this time of year prompt many Chileans to use wood-burning heaters, which vastly worsens air quality.

The Chilean capital is consistently rated among the top 10 most polluted cities in the world. Additionally, Santiago has the second-highest level of ground-level ozone, according to the World Health Organisation, which defines PM 2.5 as a mixture of particles with diameter of 2.5 microns including "sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon and mineral dust".

Two in five vehicles with catalytic converters as well as four in five vehicles without catalytic converters were banned from Santiago's streets yesterday.

"We call for people to respect the measures in order to help reduce the pollution of Santiago," the Environment Ministry said.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2015, with the headline 'Chilean capital in pollution emergency'. Print Edition | Subscribe