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Choking Mexico City Tries to See Its Way Clear as Smog Season Rolls In

Times Staff Writer

Hoarse, hacking and teary-eyed, the teachers at Candido Jaramillo grammar school surveyed their students through a metallic haze of smog in the schoolyard recently and tallied up the missing.

“Twelve children from my class of 42 were out sick today,” Magdalena Sanchez said above the din of boys and girls playing tag.

“And this is nothing today,” said Rosenda Marquez. “You should see it on the days they fire up the dog crematory around the corner. Then the air really gets bad. The smell sticks to our clothes all day.”

Dog smoke is not among the toxic pollutants measured by the government monitor at Jaramillo school, one of 25 monitors placed throughout the capital to tell officials what the teachers know from their own sick students--that the Taxquena neighborhood is one of the smoggiest areas in the world’s largest city, which may well be the world’s most polluted.

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More Choking Than Ever

Mexico City’s smog season has arrived with a vengeance this fall, with air--if you can call it that--thicker, smellier, grimier and more choking than ever.

In the early morning, grit trapped by a layer of cold air in the mountain basin that surrounds this capital city turns the sky leaden. Later, the sky grows jaundiced with sunlight until finally, afternoons bow under the weight of what look like thunder clouds. But those are no rain clouds. They are the accumulation of more than 5 million tons of pollutants--from hydrocarbons to fecal dust--emitted into the air each year, which will not clear until the summer rains begin in May.

The most serious pollutant, however, is invisible and will not wash away. It is ozone. In southern Mexico City, where the Jaramillo school is located on a busy street, on a recent day the ozone level registered nearly 2 1/2 times higher than that considered acceptable. Officials say high levels of ozone are now recorded more frequently and are hanging around longer--up to four and five hours a day.

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“We do not know the effects of exposure to ozone for long periods of time,” said Sergio Estrada, coordinator of the secretary of health’s commission on the environment and health. “We don’t know if it is dangerous because there are no studies.”

Outgoing President Miguel de la Madrid was the first president to admit or address Mexico City’s pollution problem. Despite his administration’s efforts to clean it up, though, the air is more foul than when he took office six years ago.

Sergio Reyes Lujan, an assistant secretary of ecology and urban development, said the concentration of ozone in Mexico City has been increasing each year for the last three years and that 1988 has been the worst year yet.

“Last year, Los Angeles violated air quality standards 150 days, while we violated them 250 days. This year, things have tended to be worse,” Reyes Lujan said. “The problem is serious. Exposure to this level of contamination sooner or later will hurt your health.”

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Teachers and doctors say it is sooner, that each year their children are turning up with more frequent and varied illnesses, from asthma to eye infections.

“The only other time we see this many kids absent is when there is an outbreak of chicken pox,” Sanchez said.

Marquez said her students are breaking out, but not with chicken pox. “One of them had a very bad rash with infected pimples. The doctor said it was the pollution.”

Estrada said a government study, begun in 1986, of respiratory illnesses and related deaths at 17 state hospitals failed to show a direct link between contamination levels and the sicknesses or deaths. He said the risk of illness has risen for Mexico City residents but “without reaching emergency levels.”

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His point of reference for an emergency, however, is London in 1952, when nearly 5,000 people died.

In 1986, the government initiated a plan to control pollution, including a new lead-free gasoline that some ecologists now blame for the increase in ozone. Mexico City’s 2.5 million automobiles are responsible for nearly 80% of the pollution. Most of the cars are 1970 models or older, need tuning and have no catalytic converters or emission control devices.

In addition to the cars, Mexico’s pollution is fed by industry and the uncontrolled emission of such substances as paint solvents, cleaning fluids and smoke.

The government also has an emergency plan to reduce industrial production by 30% and to take 20,000 state automobiles off the streets when the pollution reaches a level that is understatedly called “poor.” But that plan was put into effect only twice last winter and has yet to be implemented this season, despite a recent four-day stretch when the pollution was recorded as “poor.”

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Reyes Lujan said the plan is put into effect only if there is no chance of an afternoon clearing. There was an afternoon “dispersion” on each of the four days in question, he said.

Ecologists say Mexico uses the same standard to measure smog as the United States but reads the numbers differently. Whereas the U.S. index is based on the highest readings of pollutants, Mexico’s is based on an average, so that the overall reading is lower.

Reyes Lujan insists that the government is moving as fast as it can. “I live here, and I am not suicidal. We measure this well. The problem is serious, and people are right to be worried. But there is no magic wand to solve the problem.”


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