Some 35 per cent of Mexico City's 18 million residents suffer from air pollution. According to the Washington-based World Resources Institute, some 6,400 people die of particulate pollution - from road dust, diesel soot, wood smoke and metallic particles - annually in the Mexico City metropolitan area.
"That message should be taken into account when international leaders seek consensus on the contentious issue of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming," says Victor Borja, an award-winning research scientist at the federal government Health Secretariat and co-author of a study into the problem. The Kyoto Protocol featured prominently in discussions to devise an implementation plan for the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg earlier this year.
Controlling greenhouse gases will "diminish the risk of respiratory or acute cardiovascular illnesses for people in areas where pollutants are most directly emitted, as well as improving their quality of life," Borja explains.
He is part of a huge interdisciplinary team working on the Integrated Programme on Urban, Regional and Global Air Pollution, which was initiated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, in 1999 by chemists Luisa T. Molina and Mario Molina, a Mexico City native and Nobel laureate.
It was this team's research on Mexico City that provided the scientific basis for Proaire III - constituting an expansion on two previous short-term Proaires. Proaire III calls for $14.7 billion of approximately equal parts of public and private investment in 89 projects to achieve reductions of 18 per cent in suspended particulates produced from car fuel, 16 per cent in sulphur dioxide, 26 per cent in carbon monoxide, 43 per cent in nitrogen dioxide and 17 per cent in hydrocarbons.
"Reduction of 10 per cent in particulates alone could lower the number of premature deaths in the metropolitan area by 2,000 a year," Mario Molina estimates. Children are among the heaviest sufferers of air pollution. Antonio Estrada Garduña, an 11-year-old asthma sufferer, learned at an early age how to vomit the phlegm that blocks his respiratory tubes when greenhouse gases in the local smog trigger an allergic reaction. His coughing bouts strike terror in his mother.
"It's not a normal fear. It's a really big fear that one has," says Rosa María Garduna. "One can die from asphyxiation, get pneumonia, or drown trying to stick out their tongue." Sufferers like Antonio could benefit from the government programme: achieving compliance with federal air quality standards for particulates and ozone will generate up to $4 billion worth of benefits annually in avoided deaths, illnesses, lost-time at work and associated expenses, Borja says.
"Human health has been the centre of these measures," declared State of Mexico Ecology Secretary Martha Hilda Gonzalez, acting president of the Metropolitan Environmental Commission, in announcing Proaire III. Half the measures are for improvements in transport, including replacing a fleet of about 30,000 old, smoke-belching micro-buses with new, larger buses using cleaner fuel. Proaire has asked the national oil company Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) to make available low-sulphur gasoline and diesel by 2006.
The programme also calls for the valley's 35,000 industrial and power plants to improve their efficiency and burn less polluting materials such as natural gas. It recommends adoption of local zoning regulations, control of squatter settlements, natural resource conservation and environmental education in schools.
Borja and the other researchers from various countries who developed the scientific underpinning for the plan intend for it to serve as a global model. "What we learn here we can apply certainly to other developing countries, but also even perhaps in the United States or Europe," Molina says.
Perhaps the first lesson is that even a scientifically-based air quality management programme will not work without political and administrative mechanisms. "Everything Molina is proposing was proposed 15 years ago," says Ivan Restrepo, director of the nonprofit Center for Eco-Development. "What we need is political decisions, which have not been made." For example, limits on particulates and ozone were established but never enforced.
The three levels of government (city, state and federal) involved in the Metropolitan Environmental Commission, each administered by a different political party, have trouble cooperating. They have failed to act on the Molina team's preliminary recommendations to overcome this problem by making the commission independent - with its own budget, staff and rules - and by increasing stakeholder participation. The commission's instructions are falling on deaf ears.
Environment Secretary Claudia Sheinbaum has slammed the federal treasury department for failing to reinstitute a fuel tax that Proaire stipulates for funding the commission's work. In addition, transportation authorities are not integrated in the effort. Like Mexican officials, representatives of other countries interested in implementing the health and environmental agenda at the Johannesburg summit have the message of Borja's study to keep in mind.
Simply by taking measures to reduce particulate matter and ozone, countries "can provide considerable local air pollution-related public health benefits," says the study. But the Mexican experience shows that mechanisms for political cooperation remain a challenge to effective implementation.Talli Nauman writes for the Panos Institute www.panos.org.uk where a version of this article was first published.