Why Air Quality in Santiago Is Worse in Wintertime

Despite the increase in air quality in the Metropolitan Region of Chile due to Covid-19, winter is on the way and with it the promise of lower air quality. Santiago has, for years, struggled to control the increasing pollution problem, despite new strategies and equipment. The problems persist.

Santiago, Chile is a city with some of the worst pollution in South America. There are several causes for this, which vary from geographical to cultural, but Santiago is unique in the way that the pollution lingers, especially in the winter, making the problem even more difficult to tackle. This is both an  environmental and a health concern for this densely populated city.

Each year, Santiago’s residents fill hospital waiting rooms due to breathing difficulties caused by pollution. This pollution is also a contributing factor to early death, causing approximately 4,000 premature deaths each year. Pollution particles are the culprit: small enough to inhale into the lungs but large enough to cause irritation to lung tissue and in some cases even reach the bloodstream. According to The United Nations Environmental Program, health problems provoked by pollution cost the Chilean health system US$670 million annually. 

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General Pollutants

Transportation accounts for 25% of the pollution in the city, a percentage that is not expected to change any time soon. City buses are often seen as the culprit, but the bigger polluters are actually private vehicles and domestic flights. In fact, cars have increased in quantity more than households and population in the past several years.

Politicians from both sides have been taking steps to curb pollution caused by transportation. In 2014, the Chilean government launched an emission tax targeting vehicles and initiated incentives for imports on cars that reach European emission standards. The government has also made investments in public transportation. Despite these actions, there has been no significant change in emissions. This is due to the fact that the government continues to prioritize bettering motorways rather than public transportation. Some studies even suggest that the motorways will continue to see more traffic despite the opening of new metro lines and the purchase of additional buses. 

Factories and the industrial sector are also large contributors. With the concentrated population of Santiago, a lot of energy and production becomes necessary. The government has also tried to curb these pollutants by enforcing harsher emission standards for each. While this has helped with emissions in terms of the factories, it is merely a small step overall to dealing with this growing problem. 

In addition, Santiago is an arid city, which sees little rain throughout the year. This combined with its low level of wind, creates perfect conditions for pollution, conditions that are steadily worsening due to the current drought that the country is experiencing.

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Why It’s Worse In Winter

There are several factors that contribute to even more pollution in the winter. The biggest culprits are wood-burning chimneys, which are prevalent in the poorer sectors of the city. Although they pump out dangerous carcinogens, upgrading to cleaner technology is cost-prohibitive for most who rely on them to heat their homes. The Chilean government has attempted to donate cleaner forms of heating, but to little effect. 

The natural geography of Santiago and the colder weather in Chile also combine to exacerbate the situation: they create the perfect conditions for pollution to become concentrated. Although Santiago sees brown and polluted skies even in summer, the pollution is usually worse during the winter because of the city’s location in relation to the Andes mountains. The smog gathered from pollutants becomes trapped by the mountains  and cannot escape, and then on top of that (literally) is an atmospheric inversion that traps the pollution closer to the ground.

While Santiago is not the only city in Chile that suffers from pollution, it does concentrate the largest population in the country and has a unique geography that makes solving the problem of contaminants quite challenging. As the harshest time of the year for air pollution approaches, it reminds residents – with the disappearance of the Andes behind a layer of smog – that more aggressive actions are necessary to diminish the looming pollution problem. 

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