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Hold your breath

Santiago struggles to deal with its longtime smog woes.

A general view of the Chilean capital under a heavy layer of smog during a winter day, July 3, 2006. (Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)

SANTIAGO — Soon it will be that time of year again. Children and the elderly will be wearing surgical masks on the streets. Hospitals will overflow with babies gasping for air. Schools will suspend sports activities.

And everyone will blame everyone else for one of the capital’s longtime ailments: the dark cloud of smog that hovers over its 6 million inhabitants.

Santiago is one of the most polluted cities in Latin America. Trapped in a valley surrounded by the Andes on the east and a coastal mountain range on the west, the capital suffers a thermal inversion during the winter that keeps pollutants from dispersing. Only the winter rains bring relief.

In addition to geography, population growth, poorly regulated transportation systems and manufacturing, and the use of polluting energy sources such as coal and lumber have made smog a life-threatening issue.

When pollution reaches critical levels, public health centers are overwhelmed. A study, commissioned by the government National Environment Commission (Conama) and released in July, found that every year, almost 20,000 people suffer pollution-related health problems in the capital. The report estimates air pollution will cause 720 deaths in Santiago next year.

Now, with rainfall expected to be lower than normal this year, Santiago residents are hoping that an updated version of the government’s 12-year old Prevention and Atmospheric Decontamination Plan (PPDA) for Santiago — which aims to reduce air pollution to adequate standards by next year — will work. Full approval for the plan is expected in several months.

In the past, all sorts of not-so-sensible solutions have been proposed, including blasting a hole through the mountains for ventilation (never done) and a plan to change the location of exhaust pipes on buses (done, but to no avail).

The first comprehensive decontamination plan was created in 1997 after the government declared Santiago saturated (above acceptable levels) with ozone, particle material and carbon monoxide, and near maximum levels for nitrogen dioxide.

The original plan involved some 140 measures to control contamination from transportation (which produces about 40 percent of the city's air pollution), industry (responsible for another 25 percent), commerce, construction, agriculture and households.

Since then, much has improved. In the early 1990s, diesel contained 5,000 parts per million of sulfur, and now it has 50, said Conama director Jorge Lagos. The 1,500 parts per million of sulfur in gasoline were reduced to 30, and in 2001, lead was eliminated from gasoline. Particle matter (PM) fell by more than 50 percent, and the levels of fine particle matter, which is most damaging to people’s health, have dropped 66 percent.

“This was not magic. This was done by the state through the National Petroleum Company, which invested many millions of dollars for this to happen,” said Lagos, whose agency is constantly under fire for not doing enough.