A report in May that found San José’s air quality to be hazardous to your health appears to have grabbed the government’s attention.
Following five years of annual studies from the National University (UNA) showing increasing air pollution in the capital, President Oscar Arias’ administration has signed a series of agreements to bolster the university’s research and act on its findings.
“The idea is for the government to have the data to make decisions,” said Félix Rojas, a researcher with UNA’s Laboratory of Air Quality.
The university’s air quality study found that yearly average levels of nitrogen dioxide, the metal manganese and fine-particulate matter exceeded levels considered relatively safe by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (TT, May 23).
“Every day we are exposed to concentrations that aren’t so high as to cause internment in hospitals, but are sufficiently high as to cause chronic affects,” lead researcher Jorge Herrero, who is finishing a doctorate in Mexico, told The Tico Times.
Throughout 2007, fine-particulate matter – microscopic soot that lodges deep in the lungs – was routinely at unsafe levels during March, April, July, September and November at many locations in San José. The tiny particles can cause respiratory problems, aggravating asthma, and infections and disrupt heart functions.
Manganese, a neurotoxin, was also reported at unsafe levels. According to WHO, extended exposure to elevated levels of manganese can affect the respiratory and nervous systems. The UNA report blamed the metal industry for this pollutant’s presence.
Levels of nitrogen dioxide were also found to be consistently unsafe year round downtown as well as in the Sabana Sur neighborhood south of La Sabana Park in western San José. This chemical compound – which combines with heat and sunlight to produce ozone – causes skin irritation, damage to capillaries in the lungs, bronchitis and emphysema.
With that long list of potential health effects in mind, UNA signed an accord with the Costa Rican Nutrition and Health Research Institute (INCIENSA), an office of the Health Ministry, to begin joint research on the connection between air pollution and health problems.
“We will see if there is a correlation between the increase in contaminants and illnesses,” Rojas said. “Obviously, (the contaminants) have a harmful effect on health.
But how much is the impact?” Rojas said that the existing research shows the health risks are increasing.
Warnings of poor air quality in San José are nothing new and would not come as a surprise to many who live and work in the capital. Exhaust-belching buses are packed into oftennarrow city streets choked with traffic.
Researchers have been repeating that message since 2004, when Jorge Herrera, who heads UNA’s air quality research, estimated that 75 percent of the air pollution came from vehicles (TT, Nov 5, 2004).
For the study released this year, the UNA lab expanded its monitoring to include points in Heredia, north of San José, and Belén, to the northwest of the capital.
The researchers had not looked at Heredia’s levels since 2005. In those two years, pollution increased 20 percent.
“Heredia has problems, more than anything, because of the quantity of buses located on just one block,” he said, adding that the town’s notorious traffic is worsened by narrow streets blocked by parked cars.
As traffic slows to a near crawl in the worst traffic jams, vehicles spew more and more toxins into the air.
To tackle the problem, the Arias administration and UNA have agreed to create the National Atmospheric Pollutant Monitoring Network, which will expand the university’s research and drive policy.
The research will expand into the capital cities of neighboring provinces, such as Alajuela to the northwest and Cartago to the east, that make up the greater metropolitan area of San José.
Citing Costa Rica’s most recent census, in 2000, UNA’s air quality study in May said the greater metropolitan area accounts for just 4 percent of the national territory but contains 75 percent of the country’s vehicle fleet, 70 percent of national industry and 60 percent of the population.
The university’s research would also be expanded to cover more pollutants. The plan lays out a series of tasks for various government ministries and local governments to get a better handle on the nation’s air pollution.
The plan calls for an inventory and registry of all sources of air pollutants, from factories to vehicles, which would be kept by the Health Ministry and the municipal governments.
The administration also plans to reduce air pollution by setting emission reduction goals for industries, promoting and improving public transportation – including plans for a new urban train, possibly electric – and strengthening nationwide mandatory vehicle inspections.
Finally, the plan calls for attempting to curb energy consumption by promoting more efficiency and increasing clean, renewable energy sources “on the production side and the demand side, to the point where 80 percent of all energy consumed in the country is based on renewable energy by 2021.”
The launch of this plan comes a full two years after a 2006 study by Herrera and his team at UNA found that one in four rain showers over the nation’s capital could be defined as acid rain (TT, June 2, 2006).
The study was part of a joint research project between UNA and the San José municipality called “Green Agenda Program: San José.”