Mexico City faces foul air crisis

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January 22, 1996
Web posted at: 3:30 p.m. EST (2030 GMT)

From Correspondent Lucia Newman

MEXICO CITY (CNN) -- An atmospheric emergency entered its third day in Mexico City Monday. And many of the city's 22 million inhabitants were doing their best to escape.

"I have a chronic cough," said one woman, "and there's nothing I can do because the doctor says its the smog."

Forty percent of the city's three and a half million cars are being kept off the streets, 20 percent of gas stations are closed, and polluting industries have been shut or are working at half steam. It's all part of the government's new smog contingency plan.

"If you look at this program only to respond to air emergency, to prevent sickness of the children, it is working," said the city's smog coordinator Dr. Eduardo Palazuelos.

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But it is not working as well as hoped. Despite the measures, ozone and suspended particles in the air are still way above what the World Health Organization considers acceptable for human beings. Hundreds of thousands of residents are suffering from respiratory problems, headaches, and eye infections. And now children are being told to stay indoors.

The smog plan was implemented Friday when ozone levels soared to nearly three times the acceptable level. But environmentalists say it's like putting a Band-Aid over a serious wound.

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The most important contribution to clean air, they say, would be to force Mexico's state-owned petrol monopoly, Pemex, to provide truly clean gasoline. Pemex continues to produce leaded and low-quality unleaded gasoline, presumably because it's inexpensive.

In the meantime, authorities say they are working on solutions to the smog problem but admit that not even 20 years will be enough time to clean the air.

"That means our children are going to live their lives under contamination and the elderly, who are also the most vulnerable, won't ever breath clean air again," said Homero Aridjis, an environmentalist.

Even so, the government is reluctant to take the unpopular measures necessary to really solve a problem whose long-term health consequences most people are equally reluctant to hear about.



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