2015/07/05

[Chile] Air quality and the dangers of Sport

A few weeks ago, I felt particularly "depressed" on Friday morning, and again on Saturday morning. Not wanting to give up to depression, I forced myself to go to a sport social event (http://www.shhh.cl/) in order to "fight the blues".  I ran 7kms with some friends, but almost passed out on a couch at a friend's place for 40mns. When I told the story to a friend on the next day (Sunday), she told me that I was crazy to run 7kms when the whole city was in "environmental emergency"!

When I went to see the doctor one day later (Monday), she told me that the pollution in Santiago this year has reached record heights and duration, and that even the government admitted that those levels had not been reached since 1999, 16 years ago. Given that I don't watch TV nor listen to radio, she advised me to install an application on my phone to monitor daily the quality of the air, or at least before doing any kind of sport, even on a static exercise bike in the afternoon (which means almost every day for me).

I found several applications, but one caught my attention in particular, which compares the Chilean labeling of air conditions with the labeling according to USA's norms: here is an example of a reasonably normal day:


I was intrigued. The norms for the Chilean labeling are given on the official page where the government announces restrictions on which cars can drive during air quality emergencies (http://portal.mma.gob.cl/pronostico-rm/). I found the norms for the US labeling on Wikipedia (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs313/en/). The thresholds for alerts in Santiago are on a completely distinct scale from the recommendations of the World Health Organization's. For example, just taking PM 2.5 and PM 10:
  • The World Health Organization's recommended maximum PM2.5 level is 25 μg/m3, while Chilean's norms consider a value of 46.5 µg∕m3 of MP 2.5 as "bueno"  on [2015-07-06 Mon]. On [2015-06-22 Mon] it was 98.8 µg∕m3 of MP 2.5 as "alerta"...
  • The World Health Organization's recommended maximum PM10 level is 50 µg/m3.  At Parque O Higgins on  [2015-07-06 Mon], it was 74.1 µg∕m3 or "bueno". On [2015-06-22 Mon] it was 173.6 74.1 µg∕m3 or "regular"....
I am not the first one to worry about this discrepancy: other foreigners have commented on it in the past (http://southernpacificreview.com/.../santiago-air.../). Chilean's reactions, as far as I saw, range from resigned to amused: when told about this, a colleague, single mother of two, told me "well, I guess if we looked at US labeling, we would never go out of home". And she is right: the US labeling given by the application are almost always "unhealthy for some" or "unhealthy" for the place where I live and work, "Parque O'Higgins"...

I was advised to move to another place: many colleagues live in "Las Condes", which is higher in the mountains and where the air ratings are consistently better, with a commuting time ranging between 2*40mns driving a car and 2*1.5h taking public transportation. Some staff live well outside the city, and commute for 2*2h a day, sleeping and reading in the bus. The air quality is better in general, but even those places were affected during the air quality emergency.  

Beyond the thoughts about moving to live in a place where I can breath better, there is a more personal morale to the story: several times before, I learned after spending a week-end feeling "depressed" that there had been an air quality emergency, but as my energy level did not improve much when the alert had been removed, I thought that it was a coincidence. Now that I know that a "regular" status of the air quality can hide very distinct levels of air quality (according to US and WHO standards at least), I have to revisit my assumption: I will try to learn the distinction between depression and asphyxia! 


References:
  • http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs313/en/  for the recommendations from the World Health Organization mentioned above;
  • http://portal.mma.gob.cl/pronostico-rm/ for the map generated by the Chilean government;
  • http://southernpacificreview.com/js/airquality.html for an analysis of the air quality by US's standards in real time; and 
  • http://southernpacificreview.com/.../santiago-air.../ for the explanation of how the table is computed.
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