A Day In The Life Of Mother Earth : Mexico City’s Smog : ‘If the pollution is particularly bad, they don’t go to school. They are absent a lot.’ Ana Luisa Villamil, <i> mother of four : </i>


* The Problem--Air Pollution

* The U.N. View--”More than 1 billion people breathe air that does not meet minimum health standards. Respiratory diseases, cardiac problems and cancer are the result.”

* The Case Study: Mexico City--The air is so foul that the city had to be partially shut down earlier this year, and female diplomats are urged to return home during pregnancy.

As Ana Luisa Villamil awakens her four young children in the morning, she switches off the air purifiers that have filtered their bedroom air through the night and turns on the radio to hear the morning smog report.


At the same time, she is aware of listening to the kids’ breathing, searching for the first hint of an abnormal cough. Not the common, mucus-filled cough that most children bring home from school, but that dry, deep-chested bark that warns of trouble.

“It is the typical reaction to pollution and if I hear it, or if the pollution is particularly bad, they don’t go to school,” Villamil says. “They are absent a lot.”

For Villamil, as for so many of the 18 million people who call this megalopolis home, Mexico City’s world-class air pollution is a tremendous source of anxiety.

Villamil keeps the windows of her lovely two-story home tightly shut. More often than not, what she sees when she looks out of them in the morning is a leaden haze that direct sunlight cannot penetrate, even though the valley of Mexico City sits at 7,000 feet. The foul air often reeks of gas fumes and rotten eggs and obscures the view of high-rise buildings just blocks away.

At breakfast, Villamil plies her brood with good foods and vitamins, particularly A and E, which she has been told helps prevent the body from absorbing pollutants. Then she tells her three school-age children to wait for their car pool indoors--never outside in the pollution.

When it’s her turn to drop off the children, Villamil is struck by the number of youngsters she sees wearing tapabocas , or surgical masks, against the pollution. She briefly considered masks for her own children, but rejected the idea as “too radical and horrible.”


Since “smog season” began last November, the primary school that her children attend has routinely suspended recess sports. On bad days, the kids play indoors in the music room and auditorium. On the worst days, the children are told not to exert themselves at all.

As a result, Villamil’s children have begun to dread going to school.

“They never used to dislike school. But now, if they have been kept indoors two days in a row because of the pollution they say: ‘Mama, I don’t want to go. They keep us inside all day.’ ”

Villamil also has stopped taking her family to swimming and karate classes that were an hour’s drive across the city. And now, to top it off, she is debating whether to pull her 8-year-old son, Diego, out of his soccer league.

“One of the healthiest things for a child is sports and yet here it is a risk. It’s terrible,” said Villamil, clearly distraught by the dilemma. “I go back and forth. Should I, shouldn’t I? He hasn’t had recess all week. The pollution is high Saturday mornings. But if I tell Diego no more soccer, he’ll have a heart attack.”

The smog causes burning eyes, bloody noses and headaches in even the healthiest people. In others, such as Villamil’s children, it produces chronic respiratory illnesses--coughs, asthma and a croup that put her daughter Andrea in the hospital when she was just 10 months old.

Villamil, 35, first became aware that the pollution had reached dangerous proportions in the fall of 1988, when her children were sick for five and six months at a time and her asthmatic father was bed-ridden with pneumonia.

On the radio one morning, she heard an environmentalist, Luis Manuel Guerra, railing against a former health official who, during six years on the job, had denied any connection between smog and respiratory ailments. Shortly after leaving his post, the official admitted smog was a health problem.

Guerra’s report spurred Villamil into action. She helped organize a parents meeting at her youngsters’ school and invited him to speak.

“We went to the government and were told that the measures they were taking would pay off in 10 years. We were stunned,” Villamil recalls. “The kids were sick all the time. One year they would be sick from October to March, the next year from September to March. Every year it was a little bit worse.”

That’s when Villamil installed the air purifiers and closed the doors and windows throughout the house. She tried giving Diego allergy shots for six months, but gave up because they made him so miserable.

Things began to turn around in November, 1989, when the city instituted its day-without-a-car program, banning 20% of automobiles each weekday. For the first year--before so many residents bought second cars--the air improved and so did the health of Villamil’s children. Then they began to slip again.

Villamil and her husband considered moving out of the capital, until they learned how hard it was to find good jobs in the provinces. The next best thing, they decided, was to get out of the city as often as possible. Villamil’s father, who had been at death’s door, recovered fully once he began leaving the capital every Thursday through Monday.

As a policy, the family now leaves at least once a month and, as a result, Villamil’s children are ill far less often--about a week every month or two months.

After her children leave for school in the morning, Villamil gingerly opens a couple of windows to air out the house, but she puts towels over them in an effort to keep out the dust or, as experts call it, particulates.

Villamil has a business selling ceramics to department stores. Normally, her day without a car is Thursday, so she tries to make her deliveries and collections the other four days.

But the smoggiest days are so energy-sapping that a simple errand can turn into a major chore. And when the pollution reaches dangerous levels, as it did frequently in March, her car is restricted two and three days a week. When such strict measures are in place, she said, the ceramics don’t sell anyway. Nobody goes shopping for gifts and luxury items.

Villamil keeps her children indoors after school until 5 p.m., when the smog disperses and she takes them to the park. But she listens to the radio and if the air quality does not improve, she doesn’t even let them out to play in the garden.

After dinner and a nightly bath, she tucks them into bed and turns on the air purifiers.

“Smog is the topic of conversation at dinner parties. People say, no, no I don’t want to talk about smog anymore. But it’s like the (1985) earthquake. When you’re anxious about something, you have to talk about it. The problem is, unlike the earthquake, the smog doesn’t stop,” she said.

For Luis Manuel Guerra--the man Villamil heard on the radio--combatting air pollution is a mission. The 42-year-old environmentalist leaves his home in an ecological community on the outskirts of Mexico City before daybreak for his morning radio broadcasts.

He has about five minutes in each time slot--and two more opportunities in the afternoon--to educate Mexicans on the dangers of smog and other forms of pollution. On this morning, he is criticizing the mayor’s limited vision for improving Mexico’s air and calling for a single, unified transportation system for the entire metropolitan area, which stretches into the surrounding state of Mexico.

Guerra is a bundle of energy in horn-rimmed glasses, a conservative dark suit and red power tie. As a member of the mayor’s Metropolitan Commission for the Prevention and Control of Air Pollution, he has access to officials all the way up to President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Yet his ideas are decidedly radical.

“We must stop growing,” he argues in the studios of Radio Red, whose 7.5 million listeners are Guerra’s audience. “To stop growing does not mean to stop developing. We cannot keep growing as we are. If they don’t restrict the use of private cars in this city, we will never have clean air. Period.”

The only one way to accomplish that, Guerra says, is to “make it impossible to use a car in this city--make it impossible to move.”

Guerra heads the Autonomous Institute for Ecological Research, a nonprofit group founded in 1985. In addition to his media work, he advises private industries and government agencies on ways to operate ecologically.

Over a restaurant breakfast, Guerra explains his plan for cleaning up Mexico City’s air. The government, he declares, must tack a 100% tax onto the price of gasoline--a measure Mayor Manuel Camacho Solis has rejected as inflationary.

Guerra argues that business and industry could be compensated with a tax break to keep costs down. The extra income from private drivers could be put in a fund to purchase and maintain badly needed city buses. Since 1979, he says, the number of buses has declined by half.

Officials should ban automobiles with fewer than three passengers from the city’s main thoroughfares during rush hours--about seven hours a day. And, the city should encourage the use of school buses with a tax break and by prohibiting private cars from stopping near schools before and after class.

Against conventional wisdom, Guerra argues that rather than force builders to include parking in their new offices and shopping centers, the government should halt construction on all new parking structures. Parking, like new bridges and roads, only facilitates driving.

Guerra believes the public’s awareness of pollution has risen dramatically in the last seven years but that it has not yet translated into a willingness to make sacrifices. Most of Mexico City’s smog is produced by a small minority--16% of the residents--who own cars. In a very class-conscious society, public transportation is relegated to the masses.

Nonetheless, “ozone” and “thermal inversion” have entered the lexicon of everyone from corporate executives to maids and taxi drivers.

Last March 16, ozone hit a record 398 points on the government’s Imeca scale--or 0.42 ozone parts per million. That is nearly four times the federal standard in the United States and higher than any reading measured in Los Angeles in more than a decade. As a result, the mayor implemented a second-stage emergency plan, cutting back industries and restricting driving to only five days, and in some cases, four days a week.

Returning to his office briefly to monitor his own on-going air quality tests, Guerra explains that the ozone was actually worse than the government admitted on March 16. While the government measures air pollution from rooftops, Guerra measures at ground level--”where the people are.”

His tests routinely show 20% to 25% more pollution than the government’s. On March 16, his highest ozone reading was .50 parts per million. That would be a third-stage alert in Los Angeles--something that has not occurred there since the 1970s.

Next, Guerra is off to the airport, where he is advising Aeromexico airlines in the use of biodegradable dishware and detergents and ways to dispose of dirty turbine oil. He has persuaded the company to line its parking lot with trees and flowers and is to meet with a team to plan for the tree-planting the following weekend.

On the way, Guerra explains that he also differs with the government when it comes to the air’s lead content. Mayor Camacho insists that the problem of lead has been solved.

“Camacho bases his assessment on the fact that the lead content has been reduced in gasoline. That’s true. . . . But we still dump 2.33 tons of lead into the air every day. That’s too much,” he says.

Only new cars--fewer than 5% in Mexico City--use unleaded gasoline, Guerra says.

At ground level, he finds quantities of lead three times the maximum acceptable level by world standards. When his two daughters showed dangerous levels of lead in blood tests two years ago, Guerra moved them out of the city into the ecological community he helped build in 1974. Although the girls still commute a half hour to school at the southern edge of Mexico City, their lead readings have gone down to normal.

The other pollution hazard, Guerra says, is particulates--the gray-brown junk that makes smog visible. Particulates in the capital often register two to three times the maximum standard in the United States.

“The worst part of all this is that we haven’t hit bottom,” Guerra says before going to a meeting with Jacques Cousteau at the presidential residence. “We still have several frightening years ahead.”