Surviving Santiago’s Smog

This post is being written from my bed…where I have spent most of the past 4 days coughing and spluttering. This may not sound so significant, except that this is the 5th dose of flu/pharyngitis I have had since May this year. I remember the first bout clearly because it happened a few days before I had surgery on my knee. Since then, pretty much monthly I have been sick…sore throat (so sore sometimes that swallowing felt like torture), terrible cough, aches, pains, headache, runny nose etc etc etc. The last episode was only two weeks ago and so when I woke up with a scratchy throat last Saturday and started coughing during my english lessons that day, I thought “oh no, not again!!!”. Yes…again 😦

Now any of you who know me well, know that in an average winter, I am maybe sick with a bit of a cold once or twice…and I seldom if ever go to the doctor for a cold. A day or two in bed with basic cold meds and I am fine again. This winter I tried the same tactics, but after getting sick so often and the severity increasing each time, I decided this week I had to get professional help. So on Wednesday I went off to see Rodrigo’s family doctor, a sweet very old man who was slightly deaf. Diagnosis – pharyngitis (which thank goodness has not spread to the lungs) and a very low immune system. Solution – a strong dose of antibiotics.

But, I don’t think this is the full story. I have been thinking alot lately about why this winter is so different to previous winters for me. Yes, Santiago is slightly colder than Joburg and wet, but the climate is not that different. The answer is SMOG…the good, old thick brown layer of pollution that settles low over Santiago during the winter months. Some days it is so bad you can not see the Andes…not even a slight outline of these gigantic mountains so close to the city. Hell, sometimes you can hardly see the buildings a few blocks away.

The pollution problem in Santiago is nothing new…in fact, it is now apparently slightly better than it was a few years ago. Geography has a certain role to play in this problem, since the city lies in a bowl and is totally surrounded by mountains. This means that, with no winds in winter, the smog gets trapped below the mountains by an inversion layer. But I think the problem goes FAR, FAR beyond geography…yet the people of Santiago and the government are SO complacent about the problem. When I have told people that I have been sick so much, the common response is “Oh, it’s the pollution…”. This is said in such a matter-of-fact way, as if I am just supposed to accept that my throat and lungs are being infected every day with dangerously high levels of particulate matter.

Whilst lying sick in bed today I have been doing some research on the internet and frankly what I have found makes me want to jump on the next plane out of here…

The main particular matter measured is PM-10 (not to mention PM2.5 which is even more dangerous). On Chile’s scale of air quality, a measurement of below 100 PM-10 is considered good. That means that in every cubic metre of air there are 100 particles with a diameter of 10 microns. The scale below shows that Chile only starts taking note when the level reaches nearly 200:

  • Alert is particulate levels of between 195 and 239 parts per million
  • Pre-emergency between 240 and 329 parts per million
  • Emergency is above 330 parts per million.

The shocking thing is that the pre-emergency level in Chile is considered 5 times above the level considered safe by the World Health Organisation. In countries like the USA and the European Union, a level of 50 is considered a serious pollution problem. 50!!!! Chile considers 4 times that to still be acceptable…

So what happens when a pre-emergency level is reached in Santiago? There are car restrictions for a 24 hour period, 800 odd industries are forced to close down for the same period, all wood fires are banned and outdoor physical education classes in school are cancelled.

But then, the next day, perhaps the level goes down to the “acceptable” alert level and all cars and dirty industries are allowed to operate again…business-as-usual. Until the next pre-emergency…

There is SO much more the government could and should be doing to improve this situation. The health impacts of living your whole life in a city like this is scary to say the least…lung cancer, asthma, learning problems in children etc etc…yet the government is doing NOTHING. And as of today, according to the Transport Ministry website, the vehicle restriction period for 2011 has ended as well as the environmental periods (alert, pre-emergency etc). Great, so just because it is spring, suddenly we don’t have to measure the levels of pollution and we can go back to letting dirty industry pollute the city. Until next winter…



As for me, time to take my next dose of antibiotics and have a little nap…researching and writing this has tired me out…not to mention made me feel rather depressed.

This entry was posted in Chile and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Surviving Santiago’s Smog

  1. cotee says:

    hey! 😀
    my name is cote and i’m from santiago. i was reading your post and i wanted to let you know that i totally agree with you… santiago is disgusting in the winter. i know the goverment and the people should do something about it, and btw i did not know about the pollution levels; but there’s not a lot to do. The biggest problem in the city is that besides being surrounded by mountains, the coldness in the winter creates an effect that makes the air go lower which makes really hard to circulate the oxigen, and being a big city with big industries makes almost impossible to control it. i’m not defending it, i hate it too lol. And i think the reason of why we are not doing something about it is because we are all used to it, i mean is not something new and is lasts for the winter only because then the air goes up and the pollution levels go down. BTW i’m 100% sure that your illness was because of it… in fact, people from all over the country get sick for going to santiago in the winter.
    okay i just wanted to let you know my point of view since i was born & raised in santiago… we don’t even think about it, is just our reality 🙂

    • ingridckoch says:

      Hi there
      Firstly, thanks so much for reading my blog and taking the time to write and give me your point of view. I wrote this post in a very frustrated time when I was rather negative about santiago. Yes, unfortunately it is the reality here and if I want to live here, I have to find a way to cope…just like everyone else. Right now, I am loving Santiago, the summer, the long evenings and going everywhere on my bicycle. I will just have to try my best to keep this positive feeling when winter comes around again…

  2. sisi says:

    hey! im glad to have read your blog! I lived in santiago for 6 months and shortly after i arrived i started coughing in the mornings and at night…. sometimes even throuhout the day! I would feel this itcy feelings starting from my nose, down my throat, chest and all the way up to my ears. My nose would run and i would sneeze throughout the day. It was absolutely terrible. I saw 5 doctors, each prescribed me antiabiotics and cough syrup – none of which worked. I took antihistamies to calm down my symptoms but it wasn’t a solution…I only found relief once I left the country… now everything is back to normal and i feel a lot healthier. its a shame that such a beautiful city has to be so polluted…

  3. Good post, I lived 30 years in Santiago and I decided to escape, the pollution problem was one of the main reasons. Especially because I don’t see the government taking actions to solve this issue (I mean real ones). 2011 was the year where more cars were sold in Santiago. People in the city don’t take this issue seriously, mostly because is a mid/long term problem. Since I moved to Rio de Janeiro, I’ve never had any problems breathing, not a cold, sometimes a little cough, because of A/C.
    And during the summer time the levels of ozone are 20 times the norm of the EU!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s