A recent garbage-dump fire left to smolder for more than a week in Mexico City has turned the problem of air and water pollution in a city of 15 million inhabitants into a burning issue.
Mexico City's Mayor Carlos Hank Gonzalez lists pollution as one of the top four targets on the city's hit list of problems to clear up by the end of 1982. (Housing, mass transportation, and drinking water are the other three.)
But it isn't going to be easy.
More than 2 million cars already circulate within the city limits. In 1980 alone they belched out some 180,000 tons of carbon monoxide. An average 1,000 more, cars approach the city each morning, causing hours-long traffic jams.
One city resident reports, "With the dirt and junk in the air, some days you can't even see five blocks in front of you."
Although factories in the city have been ordered to stop burning refuse and spewing particles into the air, some 7,000 tons of garbage are collected and dumped into open-air lots similar to the Santa Cruz Meyehualco dump, which recently caught fire and cast a fifthy, nauseating haze over the city.
Roughly one-fourth of the city's refuse is left to decay naturally; teams of young, enterprising peasants search through the foulsmelling stuff for sealable items. The mayor says more processing and treatment plants are on the drawing boards.
Ironically, the real cause of Mexico's rising levels of pollution is the country's growing prosperity and development, explains lobbyist Ramon Ojeda Mastre, who heads an group fighting for more environmental protection laws.
"As Mexico develops, Mexicans are finally able to buy all those wonderful gadgets and things they see when they travel to the United States or Europe," he says. "More gadgets, more cars, more factories to produce those products only means more sophisticated garbage, dirtier air, and more problems."
According to Ojeda's figures, close to 100,000 people die each year in Mexico from the effects of pollution, mot notably from dirty water supplies contaminated by bacteria-laden air and rivers.
Mexico's President Jose Lopez Portillo realized the urgency of the situation. In August 1979 he set up a commission within the Health Ministry to handle environmental problems.
The commission, headed by the President's cousin Manuel Lopez Portillo, has seen to it that fines have been levied against industries that pollute the air. The commission is trying to remove high-polluting vehicles from the road, and laws have been proposed to improve the environment in cities across Mexico.
In a recent report on the state of the environment in and around Mexico City, Manuel Lopez Portillo points out that prohibiting new industries within the city limits and switching to natural gas as an industrial fuel would greatly reduce the amount of contamination in the city's air.
Tear eyes, scratchy throats, and nausea are all too common ailments suffered by city residents. Many complain the pollution is getting worse, not better.
Working in close coordination with the mayor's offices, the commission hopes to close in on noise as well as air pollution by reducing the number of private vehicles circulating in Mexico City.
The city government has launched a mammoth program to expand the mass transit system and encouage use of public transportation. Heavy cargo trucks, notoriously noisy and air polluting, may soon be banned from city streets during daylight hours. There are also plans to relocate markets and factories outside the city limits.
An estimated 3 million hours are lost daily in traffic jams that sometimes clog Mexico City streets for hours at a time. Some 2 million city dwellers still live without proper drainage systems and drinking water in their homes.
More than 5,500 tons of contaminating gases are emitted into the air each day and noise levels hover around 100 decibels in the city, some 20 points higher than the maximum believed to strain the human ear. One result is jangled nerves and hot tempers.
The next step -- already under way -- for the environment commission and independent groups is educating the people to the hazards of pollution and how to combat environment contamination.
"But it's hard to tell a rural worker who has labored long, hard years to buy his first car that it dirties the air and endangers his life," sighs Ojeda. "He sees the car as a status symbol and a way to save himself a halfday's walk to the town market."