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Border traffic leaving children in respiratory distress
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By Jamie Bowman

A blanket of smog covers the border town of Ciudad Juárez.

Free trade between Canada, Mexico and the US has brought a wealth of goods flowing across the borders. But the pollution created by tens of thousands of idling vehicles waiting at busy border crossings is causing more than just pretty sunsets.

Nearby, children are paying for that wealth with their health.

A new study funded by the CEC has found a "significant association" between days of elevated ozone readings in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and corresponding spikes in the numbers of youngsters rushed to the border city's emergency rooms in respiratory distress.

Youngsters under five years appear to be especially sensitive to ozone, says the study's principal investigator, Dr. Isabelle Romieu of the Mexican National Institute of Public Health.

The study observed that when the levels of PM10 (particulate matter smaller than 10 microns in diameter that can lodge deep in the lungs when breathed) were elevated for two consecutive days, respiratory deaths among underprivileged infants between a month old and a year old increased in the following days. But youngsters of higher socio-economic status suffered no similar increase in mortality.

Equally disquieting was the finding that other serious respiratory problems are showing up even when ground-level ozone concentrations are relatively high, but still below the Mexican standard of 110 parts per billion, measured over one hour.

That clearly indicates that existing pollution regulations in Mexico are not adequately protecting the health of the country's children, says Dr. Matiana Ramirez Aguilar, a co-investigator in the project.

"It's time to change the standard," she says.

But singling out Mexico and the transportation industry is not enough, according to Dr. David Bates, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and a world-renowned expert on air pollution.

He urges that laws and regulations everywhere be focused squarely on protecting human health. "The true threat posed to society is air pollution, not its control, despite arguments from polluting industries and their defenders to the contrary."

He cites a litany of studies around the world that demonstrate the clear and present danger. "That air pollution does, in fact, kill and cripple children is now clear beyond any credible dispute," he says.

"Children are sickened and hospitalized by air pollution in their early years, their normal lung growth is retarded in middle and later years, and they enter early adulthood with symptoms of chronic illness. Throughout this time, they are placed at increased risk of death and of developing serious, even life-threatening, illnesses," says Bates.

Romieu agrees: "It is clear that this will need the participation and determination of governments and civil society as a whole, at regional, national and local levels."

What should come as no surprise is the sheer volume of emissions coming from the lines of vehicles waiting in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, says Dr. Carlos Rincon, Air Quality Project Director for Environmental Defense in El Paso, Texas.

It's the busiest border crossing in the world, with an estimated daily average of 250,000 people going through the checkpoints and the adjacent bridges spanning the Rio Grande, he says.

Following 11 September 2001, heightened border security meant the average waiting time to get into the US catapulted from 45 minutes to two or three hours on an ordinary day, says Rincon. And, on days when US security has posted an "Orange Alert," waits can easily go to four hours or more, he says.

Now, tens of thousands of vehicles engines are kept idling in the snake-like lines at any time of the day, each waiting to inch forward, and collectively spewing tons of pollutants into the air.

The delays are far longer to get into the US than to get into Mexico. And, not surprisingly, air pollution levels in Ciudad Juárez are consistently much higher than in neighboring El Paso.

But such damaging air pollution is not only a Juárez problem, according to Paul Miller, CEC's program manager of air quality.

"Any of our congested border locations—and there are many along both the US-Mexico and the US-Canada borders—probably has at one time or another had ozone levels at these concentrations," he says. "We have to find ways to reduce idling at the borders."

Miller believes much could be done to alleviate the widespread problem.

Creating consolidated waiting areas, away from populations, so that trucks can move up in groups is a possibility. But heavy-duty diesel trucks must idle to keep their fuel warm, so some places in the US have tried providing electrical heaters.

"Reducing the amount of sulfur in diesel fuel sold in Mexico would definitely help," he adds.

By next year, the US will have phased in new tiers of sulfur-emission controls. And by 2007, the US Environmental Protection Agency will require a 97 percent reduction in the sulfur content of highway diesel fuel from its current level of 500 parts per million to 15 parts per million. Environment Canada's stated policy is to follow suit, while it is still under consideration in Mexico.

The CEC-commissioned 2001 study, North American Trade and Transportation Corridors, recommended more emphasis on rail and maritime transport, streamlining border procedures and making alternative fuels—such as natural gas—more available on main trucking routes.

The study's researchers are now pursuing a follow-up study in Ciudad Juárez. Air pollution monitors have been mounted on school rooftops near the busy highways and border-traffic holding areas of the city, with field researchers testing students' breath flow on a daily basis.

Early findings in the follow-up study, headed by Dr. Fernando Holguin of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, appear to corroborate Romieu's link between air pollution and poor respiratory health in children.

"We're finding that in our preliminary results, children in schools in areas of high traffic counts have more airway inflammation," says Holguin.

Both asthmatic and normal children are being monitored.

Rincon says the results of the first CEC study make it very clear that decision-makers must focus more funding and energy on the air pollution in Ciudad Juárez and similar border jurisdictions. Governments must be accountable for protecting public health as much as economic health, he says.

About the contributor

Jamie Bowman
Jamie Bowman is a writer, publisher, and licensed investigator based in Comox, British Columbia.

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