Life goes on under cloud of smog in Mexico City

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View of air pollution in Puebla, central Mexico, on May 16, 2019. (AFP/Jose Castanares)
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A man riding on a public bus wears a face mask in Mexico City, on May 16, 2019. (AFP/Pedro Pardo)
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View of air pollution in Puebla, central Mexico, on May 16, 2019. (AFP/Jose Castanares)
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Women wear face masks in Mexico City on May 16, 2019. (AFP/Pedro Pardo)
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A boy working as a food delivery wears a face mask in Mexico City, on May 16, 2019. (AFP/Pedro Pardo)
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View of air pollution in Puebla, central Mexico, on May 16, 2019. (AFP/Jose Castanares)
Updated 18 May 2019
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Life goes on under cloud of smog in Mexico City

  • Authorities blame the problem on dozens of wildfires that have broken out across central Mexico in recent weeks
  • Mexico City is prone to air pollution, both because of the mountains that surround it — trapping smog overhead — and its more than five million cars

MEXICO CITY: Scientists say breathing the heavily polluted air in Mexico City these days is like smoking somewhere between a quarter- and a half-pack of cigarettes a day.
But that has not stopped Oscar Chong from going out for his daily workout, despite four days of warnings from the authorities to avoid strenuous physical activity outside.
“I’m addicted to exercise. If I don’t work out on a daily basis, I don’t feel well. It actually helps release my creativity, among many other things. If I just stayed home, I’d be staring at the walls, staring at my computer screen, and ideas are never born that way,” Chong, a graphic designer, told AFP.
The trim 51-year-old was taking a break from his interval workout in the capital’s largest park, the Bosque de Chapultepec — which the authorities actually closed at one point this week, to hammer home the message that running or cycling in the middle of an air pollution alert was not a good idea.
The sprawling city — a metropolitan area of more than 20 million people — has been blanketed in a thick cloud of smog since last weekend.
Authorities blame the problem on dozens of wildfires that have broken out across central Mexico in recent weeks, and the lack of wind or rain to disperse the resulting particles.
However, experts agree the city’s chronic pollution problems are also at fault.
Mexico City is prone to air pollution, both because of the mountains that surround it — trapping smog overhead — and its more than five million cars.
But the wildfires have undoubtedly made matters worse. They have sent the levels of PM2.5 soaring — tiny particles produced by any fire that are the deadliest air pollutant.
Authorities declared a pollution alert from Tuesday to Friday, after the micro-particle level hit 158 micrograms per cubic meter.
That is the equivalent of smoking more than seven cigarettes a day, according to a widely cited study by US doctors Richard and Elizabeth Muller.
On Friday, the level fell slightly, leading the authorities to call off the alert. But breathing the air was still equivalent to smoking nearly five cigarettes a day, according to the 2015 study, which compared deaths from air pollution and smoking.
The “goal of this calculation is to help give people an appreciation for the health effects of air pollution,” the Mullers wrote.
“Of course, unlike cigarette smoking, the pollution reaches every age group.”
The gray cloud of smog has scrambled people’s routines in the sprawling mega-city.
Officials are urging residents to avoid physical activity outdoors, and children, the elderly and those with respiratory illnesses to remain inside.
They have canceled school and sporting events. The football league moved a key semifinal match to Queretaro, some 200 kilometers (125 miles) to the northwest.
Many residents who can afford it have decided to do the same, skipping town until the pollution dies down — though many traditional getaway spots outside the city are polluted, too.
That includes the picturesque colonial city of Puebla, 135 kilometers to the southeast, which is dealing with an extra dose of pollution thanks to the nearby Popocatepetl volcano, which has been spewing ash into the sky.
Other residents have little choice but to ride out the smog, which stings many people’s eyes and throats.
“I’ve been trying not to go out. It smells like something burned,” Nicte Munoz, 38, said from behind a surgical mask on her way to the environmental organization where she works.
“It’s not at all good for our health. It feels horrible when you’re going up the stairs and suddenly you can’t walk or breathe,” said Diana Mariscal, 21, a communications student from the central city of Pachuca who was visiting for the weekend.
Authorities have shut down large construction sites, restricted the use of older vehicles and ordered certain polluting industries to cut emissions by 30 to 40 percent. They have even shut down some of the city’s beloved street-food stands to reduce smoke.
But Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum and President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador — close allies in the leftist ruling party Morena — have faced criticism over the government’s slow reaction.
And none of the authorities’ anti-pollution measures amount to anything if they are not enforced, underlined Chong.
“Take the restrictions on older cars, for example,” he said.
“The (emissions) verification centers are full of corruption, and always have been. There may be a system designed to attack the pollution problem, but the reality is, it’s not. Pollution just continues, one way or another.”


Miracle of ‘Wild Boars’ rescue transforms Thai cave into tourist draw

Updated 18 June 2019
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Miracle of ‘Wild Boars’ rescue transforms Thai cave into tourist draw

  • Between October 2018 and April this year alone 1.3 million people have visited the cave complex
  • The government now has big plans for the area around the storied Tham Luang cave

MAE SAI, Thailand: Tourists snap selfies by a bronze statue of the diver who died trying to save the ‘Wild Boars’ football team from a flooded cave, while mementos from their rescue fly off the shelves — scooped up by the 1.3 million people who have descended on a once serene mountainside in northern Thailand.
“It’s amazing what happened here. I followed everything from Australia,” tourist John McGowan said after taking photos at the visitor center around 100 meters from the Tham Luang cave entrance.
“I wanted to see it with my own eyes,” the 60-year-old said, adding he was a little disappointed the cave is still off limits to visitors.
For a few dollars, tourists can get framed photos at the site, pick up posters of the footballers and take home a souvenir t-shirt — some printed with the face of Saman Gunan the Thai diver who died in the bid to save the group.
There has been extraordinary global interest in the picturesque rural backwater of Mae Sai since 12 youngsters — aged between 11 and 16 — and their coach entered the Tham Luang cave on June 23, 2018.
They quickly became trapped by rising water levels and the daring, unprecedented mission to extract them through twisting flooded passageways captivated the world for 18 nail-biting days.
When they emerged — after being heavily sedated and maneuvered out by expert divers — they did so into the center of a global media frenzy.
The cave, which previously received around 5,000 visitors a year, has since been inundated by visitors both Thai and foreign.
“A miracle has happened here with these children,” Singaporean tourist Cheong, giving one name, said but adding Tham Luang “must still have a spiritual side” despite the mass popularity.
Mae Sai district, where the cave is located, was considered off the beaten track for foreign visitors.
But between October 2018 and April this year alone “1.3 million people visited,” site manager Kawee Prasomphol said.
The government now has big plans for the area around the storied cave, Kawee added, allocating a total of 50 million baht ($1.6 million) including a shopping complex, restaurants, hotels and several campsites outside the national park.
Vans disgorge streams of tourists who explore a visitor hub where the centerpiece is a mural entitled “The Heroes.”
It depicts the young footballers, stars of the rescue, and junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha — a reminder of the governmental fingerprints in aiding their cause.
At the heart of the mural is the beaming face of Saman Gunan, the Thai Navy SEAL diver who ran out of oxygen attempting to establish an airline to the children and their coach — the only fatality across the near three-week rescue mission.
Laying white flowers at the foot of his bronze statue, Thai nurse Sumalee, who traveled four hours to the site, described him as “the hero of the whole country” in a sobering reminder of the risks involved in the rescue amid the blizzard of marketing opportunities now attached to the cave story.
Nearby lottery ticket vendors are capitalizing on the perceived good fortune linked to the boys’ survival and the folkloric appeal of a nearby shrine. The number of stalls has mushroomed from a few dozen to around 250.
Kraingkrai Kamsuwan, 60, who moved his stall to the site weeks after the rescue, sells 4,000 tickets a month ($2.5) but reckons more will visitors will arrive once the cave reopens.
He said: “People want to gamble after wishing for luck from the shrine.”