San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Cars Drive Rise in San José’s Bad Air Days

If your stinging eyes and the stench of San José’s air during rush hour weren’t confirmation enough, authorities now acknowledge the city’s air is often unsafe to breathe.

In its fourth annual report on the subject, a coalition of government and university researchers published a scathing indictment on the state of the capital’s air quality.

“This study succeeded in demonstrating that the high level of pollution is not just a threat to the environment but also to human health,” said Human Environment Protection Director José Luis Vargas, of the Health Ministry.

Researcher José Rojas and others from the National University (UNA) used 14 monitoring stations set up in the metropolitan area to collect data during 2007.

The report shows levels of nitrogen dioxide, the metal manganese and fine-particulate matter exceed those recommended as relatively safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Fine-particulate levels were routinely at unsafe levels during March, April, July, September and November. Particulate matter can be solid or liquid and includes dust, soot, ash, cement and pollen. The smaller the matter, the more dangerous it is because it can more easily penetrate a person’s lungs and cause respiratory problems, aggravating asthma, causing infections and disrupting heart functions.

Manganese, a neurotoxin, was reported at unsafe levels, but the UNA report included no explanation of potential health impacts.“By inhalation, manganese has been known since the early 19th century to be toxic,” states a report on WHO’s web site. Rojas’ report blamed the metal industry for this pollutant’s presence.

Levels of nitrogen dioxide were found to be consistently unsafe all year round in the downtown area, as well as in Sabana Sur.

This chemical compound, which along with sunlight produces ozone, causes skin irritation, damage to capillaries in the lungs, bronchitis and emphysema.

UNA rector Olman Segura said the results show the failure of the nation’s politicians to deal with the problem.

“It’s a serious call to attention to review the country’s policies and make the changes necessary,” Seguar said. “We have to create new policies, and it’s only going to get worse if we don’t act now.”

The situation is aggravated by the fact that each household in San José now has 1.65 cars, and the number of cars is increasing by 8.45 percent each year.

“We already have 1.6 million vehicles in the country,”Araya said. “We don’t need that North American model of organizing cities that serve the roads and shopping malls and not its citizens.”

Energy and Environment Vice Minister Jorge Rodríguez said the Arias administration had “declared war” on pollution but offered no specific policies.

San José Mayor Johnny Araya said he is addressing the problem with proposals to plant more trees, coordinate San José commuter bypass routes, build train routes and create more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly areas.

One of the recommendations in the report’s conclusion was for the government transportation, environment and health ministries to work together to come up with a strategy to reduce pollution.


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