This year, the authorities of the Ministry of the Environment made changes to the air quality measurement standards for this area, after decreeing an environmental health alert in the Metropolitan Region between April 1 and August 31, 2015. This measure adds to the entry into force of the measurement standard for fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) in 2012, which considers this type of particles, four times smaller than those previously considered to determine contamination levels ( MP 10), and more harmful to health. If the weather conditions are added to this, the outlook is not encouraging.
The pollution indices in this region, as explained by the researcher at the Center for Climate Science and Resilience (CR) 2 of the University of Chile, Nicolás Huneeus, are crossed by the ventilation conditions and the high intensity of emissions, which Combined, they cause scenarios like the one today where one of the measures is the vehicle restriction. As stated by Professor Leonardo Basso, Teaching Coordinator of the Transportation Engineering Division of the University, this measure has compromised "almost 50 percent of the automotive fleet: 40 percent of the catalytic ones, 80 percent of the non-catalytic ones." To mitigate pollution from these types of sources, explains the academic, the use of public transport is key since fewer engines are running, less pollution, and "cars use an engine to move 1.3 people on average in a working day ”.
But for the academic vehicle restrictions are not a solution. Moreover, “having a permanent restriction generates the opposite result because after a while people begin to buy a second vehicle so as not to be in check with the measure, and that second vehicle is cheaper, older and therefore more polluting than the first ”. That is why, he argues, the use of public transport should be encouraged, "both financially and in the space that is assigned to it in the city, and driving a car must be made to cost what it really costs society" .
Transportation is not the only factor. As Professor Huneeus adds, the monitoring stations in the western sector, those with the highest levels of contamination, "due to the high temperatures at night, there have been increases in these indicators, especially between nine and twelve at night." Therefore, "it is not the traffic that is only impacting, but it is a phenomenon that is related to the residential use of fuels." It is in this sense that it states that there is “a problem of habits and customs that we must begin to change regarding how we heat homes, to which we must add what is the energy efficiency we have. These are fundamental problems, of how the government subsidizes those changes in energy policy that must also take place at the household level ”.
Manuel Merino, Head of the Meteorology and Air Quality Unit of the National Center for the Environment (CENMA) of the University of Chile, explains that the current levels of pollution in the capital show that the excessive centralization of the city of Santiago. "The Metropolitan Region, having the smallest surface of all the regions of Chile, concentrates almost half of the population, of the automobile fleet and the factories", Merino warns.
According to the academic, ten years ago CENMA has proposed measures to attack the problem. Decentralization -through the limitation or freezing of the growth of Santiago-, the regulation of the growth of the automobile fleet and the absolute prohibition of the use of firewood as home heating in the autumn / winter period, are some of the measures mentioned by Merino.
Merino argues that another factor that plays a leading role in the high levels of contamination that we have reached has to do with the role of governments that have not acted in a timely and accurate manner on the issue, which his eyes respond to a "lack of political will and some economic interests of the real estate, automotive and firewood industries ”.
Irritations in the upper respiratory tract, rhinorrhea, bronchitis and laryngitis are part of the most common effects suffered by the population exposed to high levels of pollution, being children, the elderly and patients with cardiovascular diseases the most vulnerable to suffer them.
However, the seriousness of the situation does not stop there and its consequences can sometimes be much more critical. "These particles can penetrate to the deepest parts of the respiratory system, even lungs, causing much more intense inflammatory and irritative phenomena, causing respiratory patients to drown, suffer obstructive crises and decompensate", says Dr. Felipe Rivera, specialist in Internal Medicine and Respiratory Diseases at the Hospital Clínico de la Universidad de Chile (HCUCH). The doctor also assures that it has already been shown that long-term contamination can produce effects similar to what tobacco does, such as lung tumors and pulmonary fibrosis.
“More than 4,000 people die prematurely each year from cardiopulmonary diseases associated with chronic exposure to PM 2.5. This figure represents more than double the number of fatalities from traffic accidents (CONASET, 2010) ”, as the report from the Ministry of the Environment explains.
Professor Dante Cáceres, Head of the Environmental Health Program of the School of Public Health of our House of Studies, explains that the consequences in the population "begin to occur on the second or third day of exposure to these high levels of contamination." Only then will it be possible to evaluate "if the measures that are being taken are going to have an effect on reducing possible health impacts." Then the quantification begins: if health systems are overloaded, if respiratory consultations and cardiovascular problems increase, the impact of the measures will be evident.
Along with stressing that the solution to this problem also requires environmental education and civics on the subject, Cáceres warns that the country needs more research in this regard. “It is not only necessary to evaluate the maximum levels of pollutants but also their mixture, the type of pollutant, the type of compound in the particles. In order to do an intervention I have to have a clear diagnosis of what we have. It is necessary to specify more what we are exposed to. This is not going to be in the short term, it is in the long term independent of the measures taken by the authorities ”, concluded the academic.