SANTIAGO – According to Greenpeace and AirVisual, in terms of PM2.5, 9 of the 10 most polluted cities in South America are in Chile. The high levels of contamination put residents at risk for numerous health problems. “This ranking demolishes the myth that Chile is modern and clean”.
According to the 2018 World air quality report, by Greenpeace and AirVisual, Chile has 9 of the 10 most polluted cities in South America. This report measured air quality by measuring levels of fine particles, called “PM2.5”.
What is PM2.5?
The “PM” “stands for particulate matter (also called particle pollution): the term for a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air.” The “2.5” refers to “fine inhalable particles, with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers or smaller.” These and other definitions are available on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Particulate Matter (PM) Basics” page.
“How small is 2.5 micrometers?” asks the EPA on the page. “Think about a single hair from your head. The average human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter – 30 times larger than the largest fine particle.”
As further (and vividly) explained in paper La Nación, PM2.5 is “generally acidic particles, which contain soot and other derivatives of vehicular and industrial emissions, and correspond to the smallest and most aggressive fraction, because they are 100% respirable and therefore they lodge in [the lung’s] bronchi, bronchioles, and alveoli.”
Leaders in pollution
The city that leads the list is Padre las Casas, in Araucanía region, with a 2018 contamination index average of 43.3, which is “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”
Close behind is Osorno (38.2), followed by Coyhaique (34.2), Valdivia (33.3), Temuco (30.4), Santiago (29.4), Linares (25.5), Rancagua (22.9), and Puerto Montt (22.6).
The only city on this “Top 10” list outside of Chile is the capital of Peru, Lima. It lands on the list right after Santiago.
Sara Larraín, Executive Director of Chile Sustentable (Sustainable Chile), an organization dedicated to the care of the environment, spoke with Chile Today and explained that Chile’s presence in this ranking “demolishes the myth that Chile is modern, clean, and has quality of life at the level of OECD countries.” She also added that this “affects 80% of the population that are subject to greater contamination levels than are recommended by the World Health Organization.”
But it’s not all bad news. Chile also has the cleanest cities, where Punta Arenas and Antofagasta lead.
Antofagasta está entre las urbes sudamericanas con menor contaminación del aire pic.twitter.com/V9AHY74YUV
— Radio Canal 95 (@Canal95Chile) March 6, 2019
When talking about pollution, one of the first concerns is the health of people. Even more so when pollution levels are between “moderate” and “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”
Dr. Camila Bravo, an expert on contamination, told Chile Today that exposure to these high levels of contamination “is very harmful,” especially in terms of respiratory diseases. She stressed that living in a polluted city “produces a prevalence in diseases that harm the health of people” and it “aggravates” at-risk groups, such as asthmatics, children, and the elderly.
Larraís also referred to this issue, saying that this type of pollution overloads our healthcare systems and imposes additional large costs on the public in the form of medical expenses and days lost from school and work—making this both a personal physical concern and a national fiscal concern.
Although Chile almost completely consumes this “Top 10” list for South America, when it comes to global rankings, Chile has nothing on India.
According to the PM2.5 scale, 6 of the 10 most polluted cities in the world are in India, including No. 1, Gurugram (just outside New Delhi), with an “unhealthy” 2018 average of 135.8. Moreover, 20 of the 25 most polluted cities are in India.
As for North America, the most polluted cities in the region are in Mexico, with Mexicali leading the pack.
Nelson Quiroz is Chile Today´s photographer. He also writes about youth culture and fashion, and often contributes with photo series during marches and protests.