THE black smoke that follows run-down semitrailers,recycled school buses and 15-year-old cars throughout SanJosé isn’t just stinky and bothersome; it is costly.Air pollution in the greater metropolitan area is costingthe country, particularly the health sector, some $280 milliona year in medical treatments, hospitalization and subsequentloss of job productivity, according to a study recentlyreleased by the Public Health Ministry.This figure amounts to the cost of building seven fullyequipped hospitals or 56 regional clinics, Health MinisterRocío Sáenz told the press earlier this month when the studywas released.According to the study, Costa Rica stands to spend twicethat $280 million amount if air pollution increases from its current particle concentration level of 59µg/m3 to 69 µg/m3. (Clean air would havea concentration level of approximately 7.5µg/m3.) The country could decrease spendingdrastically if the pollution level is cutto 49 µg/m3, according to Patricia Allen,author of the study and head of the HealthMinistry’s expenses unit.THE research was done in health clinicsand institutions in 19 cantons, representingapproximately 1.62 million people in theSan José greater metropolitan area, and isbased on data from 2001, the only year informationwas available.According to the study, air pollution thatyear was responsible for some 31,000 medicalconsultations for bronchitis in children,13,000 cases of chronic bronchitis in adults,19,000 consultations for episodes of asthmaand 71,000 days of lost work among adults.In addition, the study concluded that 475seniors a year die prematurely in the greatermetropolitan area because of causes attributedto air pollution.Allen said that because this is the firststudy on air pollution’s relation to health inCosta Rica, part of the conclusions are basedon studies relating pollution levels to healthproblems in the United States and Europe.These studies determined how manycases of, for example, bronchitis in a countrycan be attributed to air pollution. The numberof total bronchitis cases is much greater,explained Dr. Cristina Vargas, who workedon the study.Because of the use of foreign studies,“there is a certain inexactitude,” Allen admitted.However, she added that the foreignstudies that served as models are widelyaccepted.ALLEN said she hopes the Costa Ricanstudy can be duplicated in the future – butmore immediately, and more importantly, apermanent and automatic monitoring systemmust be set up to measure pollution inthe city and generate a base of data andevaluations, she added. Under a proposalthat resulted from the study’s conclusions,seven monitoring stations would be strategicallyplaced in heavily polluted areasaround the city; one station would beroaming.Universidad Nacional has monitoredair pollution through two manuallychecked stations in downtown San Josésince 2003 (TT, Nov. 5, 2004).The cost of the new monitoring systemwould be approximately $1.8 million for theinitial investment and $600,000 a year – asmall price to pay compared to the cost ofmore pollution, Allen said, adding that officialsare in the process of determiningwhere they might obtain those funds. Fundsfor the study came in part from the GermanCooperation Agency.THE monitoring system would allowofficials to understand which pollutionreduction efforts work and which don’t,according to Allen.She said she has little faith in a programrecently decreed by President Abel Pacheco,at the urging of the Environment Ministry, toreduce Costa Rica’s consumption of oil byrestricting driving during peak traffic hours.The program restricts drivers once aweek from driving during rush hour in themost congested parts of San Jose (TT, July8). It also changes the work schedule forsome public employees to one hour earlier.“Costa Ricans are undisciplined. I don’tthink people are going to follow these rules,”countered Allen, adding that she herselfwould be inconvenienced by the change.INSTEAD, Allen believes the first stepto cleaning the air is ridding the streets ofpolluting vehicles built in the 1980s.Reducing taxes on new cars, particularlyones that use new technology with cleanerburning fuels, is a beginning, she says (seeseparate story).Furthermore, safe bike paths; clean,punctual public transportation; and the useof park-and-ride systems (in which driverscan leave their cars in a central, safe locationand then ride the bus into town) areessential, she said.“This would require an enormous investment,”Allen admitted – but she added thatthe price tag of not making the investmentmay be even more.