Dirty Little Secret

Sao Paulo and the Smog

This weekend we went to the mountains. On Saturday afternoon, everyone was napping so I went to relax by the pool. After about five minutes of staring up into the sky, watching ash fall down around me, I realized I wasn’t looking at sky. There were no clouds, and what I was seeing wasn’t an actual blue, but more like something blue illuminated behind a roll of gauze. Certainly not a “clear blue sky,” which is what one expects in the absence of clouds.

A smell was in the air. A smell that had been reminding me of burning leaves on autumn weekends from my childhood after a good raking of the lawn. The nostalgia dissolved and was replaced with the notion that what I was looking at was… pollution. What I was smelling was… pollution! Those weren’t birds flying around. It was large pieces of ash fluttering in the sky, waiting to break apart and drift down to the earth. I knew about Sao Paulo air pollution (not, of course, before I had already moved here). But we had come to the mountains to escape the city, with its smog and noise. All we had done was put ourselves CLOSER to the pollution!

The scene took on a surreal aspect. With no motion in the sky, except for an occasional airplane, no clouds or birds, and surrounded by a strange hazy blue-gray, it felt like a movie set, not a visit with nature. The evening was even more disturbing, as the stars I had anticipated were nonexistent. Not a single one as far as I could see. The beauty of the night sky was being blocked out by chemical contaminants!

I suffered through the evening in silence, thoughts of pollution eating away at my peace, but not wanting to appear ungrateful to our host and hostess.

That night I couldn’t sleep. The idea that we couldn’t escape smog terrified me. My chest burned as I imagined tar attaching to my lungs. I could feel a greasy film on my skin. I worried about the quality of life for my daughter. I was prone to coughing fits until morning.

The following day I shared my distress with my husband. Turns out, the air quality in the mountains was just fine. It wasn’t pollution in the sky that was haunting me, but garoa, a collection of moisture in the air, like a fog, which occurs after a long absence of rain. Totally safe. And the black ash was the result of a neighbor who had been burning something that day. Oops.

Regardless, I decided to investigate the topic.

This was not an easy task, since most information on the internet, that is accessible without purchasing a scientific study, is in Portuguese. But based on what I found, supplemented with accounts from some locals and disgruntled expats, I discovered that the residents of the city of Sao Paulo experience some of the worst air quality in the world. (See scary map I found here http://corrosion-doctors.org/AtmCorros/mapBrazil.htm) Like Los Angeles, Sao Paulo sits in a basin that collects smog. Part of the problem for Sao Paulo is due to the rapid growth of a city without an infrastructure plan to support it (i.e. let’s mix up a bunch of factories with 11 million people and 7 million cars and put it all into a Tupperware container.)

When it doesn’t rain for long time, things get especially sticky (literally). It seems that there were quite a few days since we arrived in Sao Paulo that the air quality was “regular” which is a step down from “good.” (“Good” is as good as it gets on the air quality rating scale. For those of us accustomed to corporate life, good doesn’t sound that good. We are kind of used to trying for “above average” or “excellent.” “Good” means you’re probably going to get fired.) There were more days during which the air quality reached “inadequate” levels than I’d like to think about. This was mainly due to the lack of rain. At the end of August, things even got “bad.”

So what’s to be done? What the government did was attempt to limit the number of cars driving around through a restriction of the times that people are allowed to drive,managed by license plate. So, for example, if your license plate number ends in 3 or 4, you are prohibited from driving your car from 7am to 10am and from 5pm to 8pm on Tuesdays. The government assumed this “car rotation system” would encourage carpooling and limit exhaust. However, the plan mostly resulted in people simply going to work earlier and coming home later (like my husband) on those restricted days. It also resulted in people, who could afford it, buying additional cars, and ensuring that the license plate numbers did not overlap (ensuring=bribing) so that they could drive whenever they wanted.

That strategy having pretty much failed, what’s next? Not sure. I looked for a new plan to no avail.  Either the new plan is all in Portuguese or there is no new plan.

But it did rain yesterday. So we’re safe again… at least for a while.

Gallery | This entry was posted in Living in Sao Paulo, What the h*ll is that? and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dirty Little Secret

  1. amandasperspective says:

    We have these same problems living in Asuncion, Paraguay. When the campesinos burn their fields, as they have for centuries, the thick heavy smoke settles over the city (and the rest of South America) and it’s intolerable! I feel like I am inhaling bus fumes and cigarettes every time I step outside. Even NASA has complained over the HUGE amounts of smoke clouding the atmosphere above Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina, (as I’m sure many others.) How unfortunate that they aren’t getting the message!

  2. I know, it’s very unfortunate. I can only guess that the leaders of the countries have other development priorities, and I suppose it took the US awhile to get on the ball in terms of environmental issues, but as I play at the playground with my daughter, large pieces of black ash fall down around us. It’s disturbing. Thanks for your comment!

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