Choke Hold In Mexico City

Its air pollution is worsening -and gagging the economy

As if the recession weren't bad enough, air pollution is taking another bite out of the Mexican economy. For years, residents of Mexico City have resigned themselves to annual bouts of sinusitis, bronchitis, and asthma in winter. But the city's pollution problem is suddenly too serious to ignore, reaching nearly three times the maximum acceptable level on Jan. 19. In response, city officials took emergency measures, forcing even industries with pollution controls to cut production by 30% to 40% and, for the first time, requiring people to keep their cars off the street for three days a week. The measures were lifted after four days, when levels drifted down to 180% of the standard and people were screaming about keeping their cars home. But they may soon be reimposed as more bad smogouts are expected.

NO SIESTA? Environmental and business groups estimate that emergency measures cost industry and transportation companies about $5 million a day. That doesn't include lost productivity from worker absenteeism, which runs as high as 15% during air-quality emergencies. Homero Aridjis, who heads the Group of 100 environmental organization, says each time pollution reaches alarming levels, 400,000 people visit doctors or hospitals for treatment of respiratory ailments.

Lots of schemes for cleaning up the air in the city of 18 million have been proposed, but there is no magic bullet. One plan calls for retiring all vehicles 10 years and older through a government-assisted new-car purchase program. Older cars pollute 15 times as much as new cars do. Another suggests ending the traditional three-hour lunch break, which contributes to snarling traffic.

Economic recovery certainly won't bring relief. If pollution is this bad with many industries operating at low capacity because of sparse demand, it will only worsen when the economy perks up.

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