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No Dead Birds, but Much-Touted Programs Are Barely Under Way : Monster Smog Smothers Mexico City Solutions

February 18, 1988|DAN WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

Mexico City used to divide its seasons of the year into dry and rainy. Now the year is divided into very smoggy and not so smoggy.

The four-month season of heavy pollution is coming to an end.

The cold, still mornings that compress gray clouds of contaminants to the floor of this overpopulated valley--a smothering phenomenon described by novelist Carlos Fuentes as "imprisoned trash"--are giving way to warmer, windier days that disperse the chemical haze more quickly. By 10 a.m., buildings a mile away can be seen. In January, there was no such visibility until after noon.

No Falling Birds

The good news from this past season is that birds did not fall dead from the sky as they did last year, a spectacle that horrified Mexico City residents as no natural event had since the 1985 earthquakes.

Otherwise, there has been little reason--or way--to breathe easier. A much-touted series of government-led programs to control pollution has barely gotten under way.

For those who can afford it, available solutions include weekend escapes to the country and the purchase of electric air purifiers. One company advertised such equipment--they call it "Filtron"--by warning potential customers that "the next cadaver may be yours."

Last month, the engineering school of the National Polytechnic Institute here proclaimed Mexico City the world's most polluted urban area, topping such longtime champions as Tokyo and Los Angeles.

"Mexico City is a monster with a thousand heads," said Jorge Martinez Ledesma, the author of the study.

5 Million Tons

The Mexican government estimates that 5 million tons of pollutants, ranging from mercury to lead to carbon monoxide to fecal dust, pour into the atmosphere every year.

Because levels of pollution so often exceed healthful standards in the winter, for the last two months the government has delayed the beginning of the school day from the traditional 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Experts hoped that much of the smog would have drifted away by late morning. The effort also was a way to avoid having to repeat daily the pollution danger alerts that warn parents and teachers to keep youngsters indoors and inactive to avoid respiratory problems.

At first, there was resistance to the change. Working parents were forced to leave their children unattended in the morning. The new schedule also prolonged Mexico City's morning traffic snarl.

On Monday, school schedules returned to normal, but not a few parents asked that the later start be continued.

"Pollution hasn't suddenly stopped as of Feb. 15," said Hermenegilda Gomez, the mother of two elementary-school children. "We might as well use the later schedule all year around."

The government is highly defensive about its performance in fighting pollution. Officials often preface explanations of the steps they are taking with comments such as "one has to understand, we are only beginning," or "it is hard to find other countries doing as much as Mexico," or "pollution is not any worse; it's just that more people are conscious of it."

According to the Ecology and Urban Development Ministry, levels of sulfur, carbon monoxide and lead in the air have decreased over the last decade. However, the amount of ozone that hangs over Mexico City, a product of the interaction of hydrocarbons with sunlight, has increased dramatically, officials in the ministry say.

"Overall, we're as screwed as we were 10 years ago," admitted Sergio Reyes Lujan, undersecretary of ecology in the ministry.

The government program has been marked by dramatic announcements and little follow-up. A year ago, the Ecology Ministry published a list of "100 Necessary Actions" to be taken against pollution. It said later that more than a third of them had been put in place. But on closer inspection, many of the government's claims proved to be exaggerated.

For instance, the first item on the list promised the "application of the most advanced technologies for reducing pollution from new vehicles." So far, this has meant setting emission standards for hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide at about 10 times the world norm.

Controlling automobile pollution is considered to be the key to bringing Mexico City's air quality problem under control. The government estimates that 80% of the city's pollution originates with the 3 million vehicles operating in the valley. The city's population is more than 9 million, and the entire metropolitan area is more than 14 million.

The government is now negotiating with auto makers for tougher standards next year.

"This cannot be done with a magic wand," said Reyes Lujan, the government's pollution expert.

Attempts to reduce lead emissions from automobiles have been hampered by the slowness of Pemex, the government oil monopoly, in producing lead-free gasoline.

Without an adequate supply of unleaded gasoline, Mexican auto makers are unwilling to equip their new models with catalytic converters, which control the output of several pollutants. Lead in gasoline neutralizes the effectiveness of the converters.

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