Bogotá’s Plume of Pollutants

Guest Post by John Michael

When I think about the air that our ancestors must have breathed during the Paleolithic, I imagine that it was relatively pristine and healthy, with the exception of those times when natural disasters like volcanoes or wildfires filled the atmosphere with noxious fumes; but events like these were not the rule, I imagine, and our ancestors no doubt regularly partook of an air that left them feeling healthier with each breath, and from which they had little to fear.

Such is not the case for me these days. I currently find myself living in Bogotá, the densely populated urban metropolis that serves as the capital of Colombia, and which, with over eight million inhabitants, contains a whopping seventeen percent of the country’s population. A large number of Bogotá’s inhabitants moved to the city as refugees, being displaced from their homes by Colombia’s seemingly interminable civil war, which has been fought for the past forty-seven years. This rapid and disorderly exodus from the countryside has caused unregulated housing to sprout up throughout the city. Locals know these provisional neighborhoods as casas o barrios de invasion, or, “invasive homes or neighborhoods,” in which basic amenities like running water and sewers are absent, and in which the inhabitants live in frightening poverty. This sudden and haphazard increase in size has led to multiple problems for the city, with the most ever-present and irritating of these being for myself the horrible quality of its air.

Ozone, which is generally produced in large quantities in the lower atmosphere as a result of automobile and industrial exhaust reacting with sunlight, is commonly known as smog. According to the report Air Quality Modeling Over Bogotá City, Bogotá’s “plume of pollutants is fully developed,” and covers “an approximate area of 40km by 40km,” while reaching “a maximum of 168 ppb of Ozone.” (The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Ozone Air Quality Standards places the Ozone limit at 120 ppb, beyond which point air becomes unhealthy for human beings to breathe.) But Ozone is not the only chemical which composes the permanent haze that clouds Bogotá’s city-skyline, as Dr, Gonzalo E. Díaz points out on his personal website in a warning to his patients regarding travel to Bogotá. He includes alongside ozone such pollutants as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and volatile organic compounds, among others, as well as listing their negative health effects.

Not surprisingly, I find myself constantly irritated by the ever-present smog and smoke here. When I’m walking in the street, I frequently find my thinking interrupted by whiffs of diesel exhaust from the numerous buses that ply the streets of Bogotá, and the interruption, taking the form of a sudden inhalation of thick smoke, disturbs my emotional equilibrium, filling me with a mix of irritation, anger, and disgust. But the disturbance doesn’t end there, because, upon arriving at my apartment at the end of the day, I find that my clothes reek of car exhaust, and that the smells of the street linger faintly in the air of my room. Since first arriving here a month and a half ago, I have found that on some nights I fall asleep with a slight cough, and that on some mornings I wake up with a sore throat. Additionally, I’ve found myself increasingly short of breath, all of which I’ve attributed to exhaust inhalation. 

Still, my complaints seem relatively slight when compared to the problems that my friends have reported experiencing, including chronic bouts of the flu and colds, especially among their children. And in the report A Risk Assessment of the Health Impact of Outdoor Air Pollution in Bogotá, the authors, who assessed the impact of particulate matter pollution, which is only one of the many contaminants that comprise Bogotá’s cloud of pollutants, found that “the city faces 2,307 cardiopulmonary and lung cancer premature deaths attributable to PM2.5 exposure.” And then they admitted in their report that this was a “conservative estimate!”

It appears that Bogotá’s rapid increase in size, matched with its poor regulation and enforcement of exhaust limits, have caused what was once merely an occasional nuisance to become a serious problem which threatens the health of its citizens. The extreme example that this city provides can serve to better inform us all in our efforts to make our cities more livable. The air that we breathe is indispensible to our health; quality of air should be a human right. Our ancestors did not have skyscrapers, nor mass transit, nor hospitals, nor any of the other riches and wonders that our global civilization affords us, yet they did have access to clean air, the lack of which leaves one wondering just how far we’ve really come since those long-ago days when we first hunted gazelles on the savannahs of Africa.

Posted by John Michael