Will Bogotá's massive tire fire finally spur progress on dangerous emissions?
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Will Bogotá's massive tire fire finally spur progress on dangerous emissions?

The crisp high-altitude vistas of Bogotá’s pine-covered mountains and the ubiquitous boast by citizens here that their hometown is “2600 meters closer to the stars” were noticeably absent in recent days as a curtain of rancid smog created by burning rubber fell over large parts of the city.

The fire, which began in a warehouse used to store used vehicle tires, created a powdery smog that clung to the Cerros Orientales and lent an acrid scent of burning rubber to six districts in the capital, including the heavily-populated central areas of Chapinero, Fontibón, Puente Aranda, Barrios Unidos, Kennedy and Teusaquillo. Local authorities in the most affected neighborhoods responded by canceling schools and warning the population about potential health risks.

“This is the equivalent of one million additional cars circulating in the city,” Bogotá’s Secretary of the Environment Susana Muhamad told Caracol Radio, commenting on the contamination resulting from the incineration of thousands of tires.

Mayor Gustavo Petro moved quickly to put parts of the city on “alert level orange” which, according to the Air Quality Index (AQI), means that the air is “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups.” Although the general public is not likely to be affected at this AQI range, people with lung disease, older adults and children are at a greater risk from exposure to ozone, while persons with heart and lung disease, older adults and children are at greater risk from the presence of particles in the air.

A history of incomplete solutions

While this recent disaster in the district of Fontibón is bringing greater attention to how used tires are stored and what the city is doing with its discarded waste, it seems that the politicians are marching to their own beat, commissioning even more tests and surveys to analyze Bogotá’s air quality when any layman would declare it, on any given day, pretty terrible.

The finger of blame can be pointed at least partially at the transport companies, reluctant to take advantage of favorable loans offered to upgrade their fleets and uncontrolled growth in private vehicle ownership that has, according to the Bogotá Secretary of Mobility, increased 76 percent in the last seven years, with a staggering number of 1.45 million cars in circulation as of December 2013.

And then there’s the quality of diesel fuel on offer in Bogotá. The current level of 1,200ppm (parts per million sulphur specification) is higher than that found in most other major Latin American cities. Compare this to the restrictions enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S., which phased in, between 2006-2010, a 15 parts per million sulphur specification.

Eight million Bogotanos have been waiting – not all that patiently – on news of a metro service, new bus lines and a much-needed program to scrap the city’s ancient fleet of public buses, and to some extent there is movement in the right direction.

Still, this “Athens of South America” has a long way to go. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on November 7: as citizens braved the elements with disposable face masks so as not to choke on carcinogens, local authorities hosted an international meeting on Bogotá becoming a zero emissions city.

The improvement and creation of bicycle lanes has brought flattering plaudits in the international press, but until transit systems, traffic laws and driving standards improve, most residents would rather stick to what they know than brave some of the 350km of bike lanes which may or may not be clear of traffic, treacherous drivers, thick black clouds of smog and street vendors.

Each successive mayor of the city seems to have tried implementing his own solutions to Bogotá’s pollution problem. There are the bicycle lanes, the introduction of 43 electric taxis, the traffic restrictions dictated by the “pico y placa” (when an individual car can not be on the road on certain days between the peak hours of 6:00-8:30 a.m. and 3:00-7:30 p.m., based on the vehicle’s license plate) and a “no car day” each February.

Still, as Kai Whiting, director of the energy engineering undergraduate program at the Universidad EAN in Bogotá says, “All of these efforts are fairly innovative, but have no impact on the dangerous concentrations of particulate matter (PM10), a major cause of concern in Bogotá. These particles are able to penetrate the respiratory system, leading to various debilitating illnesses like asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory infections.”

If the figure released by health authorities in Bogotá that an estimated 600,000 children are treated annually for respiratory problems is anywhere near accurate, alarm bells must be sounding. A team at Bogotá’s La Salle University will be presenting results in early 2015 from a 10-month study of the city’s air quality and its impacts on the health of the population. As Whiting put it: “This is good news for anyone who is forced to breathe Bogotá’s air.”