Air Quality in Latin America: A Comprehensive Guide
Air quality is a growing concern in Latin America. While countries such as Costa Rica and Argentina have relatively low levels of Particulate Matter (PM) pollution, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia are home to some of the continent's PM-dense centers.
To better understand the causes, health risks, and what you can do about them, we first need to look at the most recent data.
How is Air Pollution Affecting Latin American Countries?
All across the continent, PM hotspots have been recorded as having as much as 2 to 3 times the allowable concentrations set out by the World Health Organization (WHO).
- The top three cities (Angol, Padre de las Casas, Coyhaique) with the highest levels of PM2.5 pollution are located in Chile.
- In Angol, Chile, the most polluted city in Latin America, the PM2.5 concentration in 2021 was over 3 times the WHO’s threshold for safety at 47.7 micrograms per cubic meter.
- Surprisingly, the majority of Angol’s PM2.5 pollution comes not from vehicle emissions, but from wood-burning used for heating and cooking which gets trapped in the mountains.
- Other countries with some of the most polluted cities include Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, Colombia, and Brazil.
How is Latin America’s Air Quality Affecting Health & Life Expectancy?
In Latin America, research is showing the effect of particle pollution on life expectancy in particular.
- According to the Air Quality of Life Report (AQLI) 2021, the residents of regions with the highest levels of PM pollution are losing an estimated 1-2 years of life expectancy due to poor air quality.
- On average across the continent, residents stand to gain an estimated 5 months of life expectancy as a result of lower PM2.5 concentrations.
When it comes to the health of the population, air quality problems like particle pollution are a major cause.
- A 2021 report found that air pollution is one of the 3 leading causes of death in Latin American countries.
- Residents of regions with limited access to clean air that has acceptable levels of PM are at a higher risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
- Indigenous communities are at a higher risk of these health complications due to the lack of access to clean cooking solutions.
What are the Sources of Air Pollution in Latin America?
There are several things that contribute to air pollution in Latin America. One of the biggest sources is vehicle emissions, which come from cars, buses, and trucks. With many residents traveling for work each day, the Colombian cities of Bogota and Cali both ranked in the top 10 in the world for longest daily average commutes.
Other sources include power plants, factories, and construction sites.
Burning wood and other materials for cooking and heating is also a major source of air pollution in the region. For example, rural areas with fewer vehicle emissions are still experiencing more than double the WHO's PM concentration threshold due to solid fuel use in households.
What Can Be Done to Improve Air Quality in Latin America?
One of the easiest ways is to switch to cleaner cooking and heating methods, such as solar cookers and stoves.
Another is to use public transportation instead of private vehicles whenever possible. And finally, people can also help by planting more trees in their neighborhoods which act as natural air filters.
The good news is, several major cities in Chile and Mexico have already taken the initiative to impose alternating license-plate-based driving restrictions, reducing the number of vehicle emissions and congestion on the roads.
How Can Residents Protect Themselves from High Levels of PM?
Air Quality Monitors
The best way to protect yourself and your family from high levels of PM is to check the real-time PurpleAir Map that provides up-to-date information about air quality in your community. Another good measure to take is to invest in an indoor air quality monitor, such as PurpleAir, which provides you with accurate readings for pollution.
If your household has young children, pregnant women, or immunocompromised people, this is strongly advised. Since they are more susceptible to the health risks associated with PM pollution, it’s important to take extra caution.
Be Vigilant With Exposure
During periods of poor air quality, it is important to stay indoors as much as possible. If you must go outside, be sure to wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth.
It is also a good idea to avoid strenuous outdoor activity as this can increase the amount of PM you breathe in. Finally, be sure to stay hydrated, as this will help to thin the mucus in your lungs and make it easier to expel PM particles.