Aug 052013

A recent study published by the Clean Air Institute analyzed air pollution in 22 Latin American cities:

Six Mexican cities were included in the study: Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey, Puebla, Ciudad Juárez and León. However, only limited data were available for Puebla, Cd. Juárez and León. One of the main conclusions of the study is that Mexico has about the worst urban air pollution in Latin America. It is believed to be responsible for about 15,000 deaths in Mexico each year.

The focus was on the following air pollutants:

  1. Particulate matter is divided into two measures; particles less 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5) and those less than 10 microns (PM10). PM2.5 pollution is extremely harmful because it penetrates deep into lungs causing inflammation and worsening heart and lung diseases. This can be fatal.
  2. Ozone is formed in the air when oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds mix with intense sunlight. The very intense sunlight in Mexican cities makes them particularly prone to ozone pollution.
  3. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is caused by high temperature combustion of fossil fuels in vehicles, factories and power plants. It can aggravate lung diseases as well as contribute to ozone and fine particle pollution.
  4. Sulfur dioxide (SO2), which also comes from burning fossil fuels, contributes to heart and respiratory disease. Unfortunately, not all of the 22 cities had data on all four pollutants. Consequently comparisons among cities are a bit limited.

According to the study, Mexican cities had some of the worst urban particulate pollution in Latin America, significantly above WHO standards. Of the 16 cities with data, Monterrey had by far the worst PM10 pollution with 85.9 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3); considerably worse than the perennially dusty Lima with 62.2 ug/m3. Guadalajara came second with 70.1 ug/m3, Mexico City was 6th with 57.0 ug/m3, and León placed 11th with 39.0 ug/m3, even worse than Sao Paulo at 36.5 ug/m3. Though not in the study, Mexicali has worse PM10 pollution than Monterrey. Also Monterrey’s PM10 levels are much better than many major world cities including Cairo, Delhi, Kolkata, Beijing, Chengdu, Bangalore, Shanghai, Dacca, Jakarta, and Karachi.

Mexico City air quality in 1980 (Photo: Tony Burton)

Mexico City air quality in 1980 (Photo: Tony Burton)

Mexico did a bit better with respect to the more serious PM2.5. Of the 11 cities with data, Bogota was worst with 35.1 ug/m3 followed by Lima at 31.5ug/m3 and San Salvador and Montevideo at 28.0 ug/m3. The two Mexican cities with data, Mexico City (26.2 ug/m3) and Monterrey (25.9 ug/m3) were 6th and 8th.

Mexican cities also have some of the highest levels of ozone pollution. Of the ten cities with data, five of the six worst were Mexican cities. Guadalajara had the highest ozone pollution with 69.3 25.9 ug/m3 followed closely by León 68.9 at ug/m3. Mexico City was 4th (59.4 ug/m3); Monterrey was 5th (55.2 ug/m3); and Cd. Juárez came 6th (46.3 ug/m3), just ahead of Quito (44.1). Much better ozone levels were recorded by Sao Paulo (36.0 ug/m3), Santiago (28.8 ug/m3) and Bogota (21.1 ug/m3).

Cities in Mexico also had high levels of nitrogen dioxide. The highest levels were in Montevideo (70.0 ug/m3), but Guadalajara (57.2ug/m3), Mexico City (54.2 ug/m3) and León (45.5 ug/m3) placed 2nd, 3rd and 4th worst among the 14 cities with data. Monterrey was much better with the third lowest nitrogen oxide level (29.0 ug/m3), trailing only Lima (12.8 ug/m3) and Quito (23.3 ug/m3).

Mexican cities were also among the worst in terms of sulfur dioxide pollution. Of the 13 cities with data, León had by far the highest level with (23.4 ug/m3), followed by Medellin (16.0 ug/m3). Mexico City was 3rd worst (15.3 ug/m3); Monterrey was 4th (13.1 ug/m3); and Guadalajara was 6th (8.6 ug/m3).

In summary, the study indicates that Mexico has about the worst urban air pollution in Latin America. Fortunately, Mexico City, which used to be considered one of the most polluted cities in the world, has significantly improved its air quality in the last few decades. (see Rhoda and Burton, Geo-Mexico: The geography and dynamics of modern Mexico, p 177)

On the other hand, other major cities in Mexico have not had the same experience. The data in this study appear to suggest that among Mexico’s three biggest cities, Guadalajara has the worst air pollution followed by Mexico City and then Monterrey. (This study found insufficient data for comparisons with Puebla, Cd. Juárez and León.)

Other posts on urban air pollution:

  3 Responses to “Mexico’s urban air pollution remains the worst in Latin America”

  1. I think you have an error in your sulfur dioxide numbers ” .. Mexico City was 3rd worst (54.2 ug/m3); Monterrey was 4th (54.2 ug/m3); ..”

    I think, since 2012, it has not been possible for a member of the public to get the full air contamination data in Monterrey. Certainly when I was trying to find the data to make a decision about where to buy a house I discovered only average figures for the day and only 2 of 4 monitoring stations were reporting. I went back quite a few times over a month or so and tried calling all to no avail.

  2. Thanks, Stephen, for pointing out our editing error. The values have now been corrected. As you know, access to information can be a real problem in Mexico. Even though there is far more data collected than a couple of decades ago, the data that are eventually released often contain errors (hmm… like our post) or contradict other “official” numbers. Thanks again, TB

  3. Steven;

    Thanks for pointing out my error. I’ll try to be more careful in the future. RR

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