San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Growing Number of Cars Increases Air Pollution

AT the Metropolitan Cathedral in SanJosé, site of one of the capital’s two air-qualitymonitoring stations, students and scientistsfrom the Universidad Nacional (UNA)lay a pristine white sheet over a screeninside the contraption, then remove it 24hours later completely black – a darkreminder of what is entering lungs on thatstreet corner.Most of the city’s air pollution, scientistssay, is blown out of the exhaust pipes of thevehicles that crawl along its crowdedstreets.Jorge Herrera, professor of environmentalscience at UNA and head of the air-qualitystudies program, estimated about 75% ofthe pollution comes from cars. Furthermore,the pollution is concentrated in certain partsof San José where traffic is at a near standstillduring peak hours: in front of the SanJuan de Dios Hospital, the above-mentionedcathedral, parts of Avenida 10 and in BarrioMexico.LATER this month, Herrera and UNAresearchers plan to present the results oftheir air-quality study since 2003.In spite of government efforts to enforcevehicle emissions standards in the past twoyears – it contracted the Spanish-CostaRican firm Riteve SyC to conduct inspectionsusing uniform standards throughoutthe country, for example – the study shoesair pollution has slightly worsened in thecapital in the last year, Herrera told The TicoTimes.He blames the growing number of vehiclesentering the country and the inadequacyof the San José’s streets to handle them.The number of cars in Costa Rica hasdoubled in the past decade, reaching nearly1 million last year. Now, 45.5% more petroleumis consumed than 10 years ago – mostlyby motor vehicles (TT, Sept. 17).ACCORDING to the Public Works andTransport Ministry (MOPT), the number ofvehicles in the country increases by 8-12%every year. Those vehicles are concentratedin the greater metropolitan area, which funnels60% of the country’s population, 70%of its industry and 75% of its vehicles intojust 4% of the national territory, accordingto a report Herrera co-wrote and publishedin UNA’s Environ-mental Science magazinein July.Even so, pollution may not be entirelyout of hand.“In San José, there is not a grave problem,”Herrera said. “You can’t compare itwith Mexico City, for example. But in someplaces there is a problem – places wherethere is more congestion and more vehicles.”DURING rush hours, and sometimes atany time of day, the congestion around theMetropolitan Cathedral on AvenidaSegunda and Calle Central is as bad as thewaiting room at a hay fever clinic. The airquality there and at another monitoring stationabout 10 blocks south has been undersurveillance for the past eight years.The air-quality monitoring stations areabout five-feet high and nearly the shape ofboxy, steel-capped Smurfs, or the less athletic,short brothers of the space rocket.They are the latest results of more than 30years of UNA efforts to study air pollutionhere, and part of a program of continuousair-quality monitoring that began in 1993.The stations’ filters capture particles thatweigh 10 micrograms or less for study.Those particles, called PM-10’s, are suspendedin the air and are the only ones capableof entering the respiratory system. Theycan include gases, soot, and other contaminantsfrom natural and manufacturedsources.Since 1998, the concentration of PM-10’s has decreased 15%, according toHerrera’s report. That year the governmentenacted stricter vehicle-inspections standards,including those for emissions.However, the level of nitrogen dioxidein San José, a contaminant emittedprincipally by combustion and considereda main ingredient in acid rain, hashovered nearly consistently above theamount considered safe by the WorldHealth Organization since 1993.Air pollution from exhaust claims lives,shortens life expectancies and causes orexacerbates a range of diseases, accordingto the U.S.-based Health & Clean AirNewsletter (, whichreported the results of health studies conductedalong heavily traversed Europeanand U.S. roads.Long-term exposure to contaminantsemitted from tailpipes and smoke stacks areassociated with heart failure, higher asthmarates, birth defects, cancer, an increased riskof strokes, and could double the risk of heartand lung diseases, according to the site.Vehicle pollution is also suspected to be acause of global warming.Besides health risks, air pollution generatespublic expenses for the cleaning of sootand repainting of buildings.TO tackle the problem in Costa Ricabefore it gets worse, Herrera recommends athree-pronged attack.First, to better regulate vehicle emissions,the inspection system should beimproved.“They do it once per year. But, I wouldraise the number of inspections the transitpolice do” on the road, he said.Also, the roads should be improved toallow traffic to flow more quickly andreduce the time cars stay in one area.The public transportation system alsoshould be improved, he said.“Taking the bus is not very attractive. Ifyou have buses in good condition, betterroutes, better stops, people will use themmore,” he said.IN June, controversial new rules forused car imports went into effect requiringcertification for a series of requirements,including low emissions (see box).“The level of emissions is controlledwith certifications that ensure (cars enteringthe country have) good quality technology,”said Hector Arce, general director of circulationand cargo transportation for theMinistry of Public Works and Trans-port(MOPT).Arce blames air-quality problems on thenumber of vehicles. There is little hope forkeeping the roads in good condition all thetime, he said, and any widening of streets inSan José, for example, is out of the question.“Everybody knows the roads are crumbled,”he said. Fixing them “could improve(air quality) a little because the vehicles gofaster, but it’s not a full solution because wewould have to have perfect roads and that’simpossible.”ALSO, better roads would just attractmore vehicles, he said.Arce is in favor of limitations on thenumber of cars allowed into the country.“If there’s no control over (the numberof) vehicles, the metropolitan area, at least,will have difficulty handling them,” he said.Legislation is in the works now thatcould modernize Costa Rica’s private vehicles.A bill under study in the LegislativeAssembly could tax older cars, which tendto have higher emissions, more heavily thannewer ones on a sliding scale that increaseswith the age of the vehicle.Court Upholds Emissions Certificates for Used CarsTHE Constitutional Chamber of theSupreme Court (Sala IV) has upheld thecertification rules for used cars imported toCosta Rica, after they were contested bycar importers.Transit Law 36, passed in 1993, saysused cars must have a certificate guaranteeingthey pass emissions standards testsin their countries of origin before they canenter Costa Rica, then they must pass aCosta Rican technical inspection thatincludes an emissions test.However, the law was not applied untilthis year when officials began to demandthe certificates under an order from theExecutive Branch, Legislative Assemblyrepresentatives said.The Sala IV ruled last month that requiringan emissions certificate and an emissionstest is not a double application of thesame requirement, the daily La Naciónreported.A bill that would change the certificationrequirement is before a commission in theLegislative Assembly. It proposes to eliminatecertifications from other countries, andcontinue testing cars for safety and emissionsrequisites here in Costa Rica.The certification requirement has beenappealed several times by used-carimporters, who complain that some countriesdo not supply them.Environmental groups, such as theAssociation for the Conservation of ForestFlora and Fauna (APREFLOFAS), supportcertification as a part of a struggle againstglobal warming. Both groups have voicedtheir opinions publicly in full-page newspaperads in La Nación.APREFLOFAS’ ad said the legislativebill would benefit only a small number ofbusiness owners and hurt the country’s 4million residents.José Carballo, president of the CostaRican Auto Chamber (of used cars), told LaNación that most of the approximately44,000 used cars imported into the countryevery year are from the United States, and40% of those are from Florida, a state thatdoesn’t supply the now-required certification.He said the certification is an obstacleand a crime against free trade, and increasesthe cost of a vehicle for the final buyer.He added that he and other importers arenot against emissions tests, but they shouldbe conducted in Costa Rica.

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