Guest Blog: As Children Return to School, the Government must Pass Regulations for Cleaner Air

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Guest blog by Leticia Pineda, Mexican Center for Environmental Law, A.C. (CEMDA):

Children all across Mexico are returning to school this week after the excitement of the holidays. As they head back to their classrooms, kids in Mexico City will also, unfortunately, be again exposed to a danger they are not aware of: toxic air pollution from our city’s dirty vehicles and fuels.

International studies have shown that the impacts of air pollution get worse as you get closer to heavily-traveled roads, and that children are far more susceptible to the health risks of air pollution than adults. Diesel pollution, in particular, is one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution. This means that the thousands of children going back to school this week will be exposed every day to toxic exhaust from the Distrito Federal’s congested roads.

The good news is that this threat to our children is entirely avoidable. By cleaning up our diesel fuels, we can dramatically reduce the amount of hazardous air pollution filling our streets. The government has said that it would propose a regulation to do just that by the end of 2013, but we are still waiting. It is time for all of us to demand that the government stand by its word and take action, so that children in the D.F.—indeed, in all of Mexico—can go to school without breathing toxic fumes.

Is breathing diesel exhaust really so bad? The answer is a resounding YES. Just a few months ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) officially classified outdoor air pollution, as well as particulate matter, as “carcinogenic to humans,” meaning there is strong evidence that it causes cancer. This follows the IARC’s 2012 announcement that diesel engine exhaust is in the same category. The U.S.-based Health Effects Institute (HEI) – an independent research institute jointly funded by government, industry and foundations – stated in 2010 that air pollution, and specifically fine particulate matter which comes from diesel exhaust and vehicle engines, is among the top global health risks. The HEI has also found that roadside diesel pollution is linked to asthma and that its impacts are worse on children than on adults. Another study found that high levels of air pollution in California can have “chronic, adverse effects on lung development in children from the age of 10 to 18 years,” and those same scientists found that long-term exposure to air pollution impacts schoolchildren in Mexico City. In short, particulate air pollution from diesel engines is dangerous, and children are especially susceptible to its effects.

In another interesting study, HEI found that people can be affected by traffic-related air pollution as far as 300 to 500 meters away from highways and major roads. What does this mean for Mexico City? A quick search on the government database shows that there are 8482 public and private primary, secondary and pre-school schools in the D.F. In 2011-2012, there were 1,715,317 students in basic school in the D.F. How many of those schools are near busy streets? How many of those students are exposed to dangerous levels of diesel air pollution? It doesn’t take a scientist to guess – anyone who has walked or driven on our city streets while children are arriving at or leaving school knows that the answer is: a lot.

Fortunately, this problem is easy to fix. A simple regulation (already in place in other countries such as Chile, the U.S., Colombia and the E.U.) can help significantly reduce the impacts of diesels fuels. This regulation requires all diesel fuels to contain very low levels of sulfur, so that they are called “Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel” (ULSD), and they burn much more cleanly.  This cleaner fuel cuts pollution from all diesel vehicles immediately, and enables the use of advanced filters that trap the particulate pollution.  Engines that are equipped with these filters burn more than 90 percent cleaner than comparable engines that do not have particulate filters.   These filters are now standard equipment in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, where ULSD is the standard fuel.

In fact, Mexico should already have ULSD. In 2006, SEMARNAT passed a NOM that required ULSD to be available throughout the country by 2009. But PEMEX has not implemented the regulation, and six years later the government still has not forced it to. This administration has said it would propose a new ULSD regulation by the end of 2013, but here we are in January and they still have not released any proposal. As a result of their slowness, schoolchildren throughout Mexico City continue to suffer.

It is time for that to change. The government must act and pass this regulation requiring ULSD in our country – and update its emission standards so Mexican trucks and buses start to use particulate filters—so that our kids can one day go to school without breathing toxic diesel fumes.

About Leticia Pineda:

Born and raised in Mexico City, Leticia Pineda is an Industrial Engineer from the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico (ITAM), where she studied environmental economics and environmental law. At CEMDA, Leticia works as a lawyer, researcher and public policy analyst for improving Mexican regulations on clean fuels and technologies, fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, sustainable transportation systems and climate change finance.