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.”


Man’s best friend: The dogs who sniff out explosives in Kabul

In this photo taken on April 7, 2019, Afghan dog handlers walk along with explosive detection dogs on leash during a practice session at the Mine Detection Centre (MDC) in Kabul. (AFP)
Updated 47 min 14 sec ago
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Man’s best friend: The dogs who sniff out explosives in Kabul

  • The canines’ initial mission was to hunt for land mines, a vital task in a country left strewn with the devastating weapons during the war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s

KABUL: Naya, a three-year-old Belgian Malinois, focuses intently as she leaps over hurdles and zooms through tunnels on an obstacle course at a training center on a hill overlooking Kabul.
She seems to be having fun, but is in fact being trained for a life-or-death mission: finding explosives in a country where hidden mines, bombs and weapons routinely kill.
Naya is one of about 200 dogs at the Afghan capital’s Mine Detection Center (MDC), a non-governmental group raising the animals from rambunctious pups into a disciplined force, and teaching handlers how to work with the canines.
A common sight around the Afghan capital, explosives-sniffing dogs are deployed at checkpoints and government facilities, where they are an important tool in combatting the flow of homemade bombs being smuggled into Kabul.
“The dogs are very useful — they are very fast, they do their jobs with great speed,” Taj Mohammad, a long-time trainer at the center, told AFP on a recent visit.
Handlers demonstrated how they train dogs to hone in on particular scents — explosives mainly, but also narcotics — by using a special carousel of identical metal cannisters that conceal different smells.
Each time a dog correctly identifies a target smell, the handler gives it a rubber chewy ball to chomp on as a reward.
“The relationship with the handler must be perfect. If it does not work, there will be casualties,” Mohammad said.
It takes about two years to train an explosives dog, and the process is intense for both the handler and the canine. The animals at the MDC are all German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois.
“It’s as if you are building a house or bringing up a child,” Mohammad said.
Handlers get about $500 a month for their dangerous work — not a bad wage in Afghanistan — as well as life insurance and retirement benefits.
Explosives are “a hidden enemy, so all the time I have a little fear in my heart,” dog handler Zabihullah Amin said.

After the MDC was established in 1989, the dogs mainly came from the Netherlands, but now most are local after breeding started here in 1994. More than 1,100 dogs have completed the training.
The canines’ initial mission was to hunt for land mines, a vital task in a country left strewn with the devastating weapons during the war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
But the dogs’ use tapered off in recent years following a series of incidents where they missed explosives, sometimes causing casualties as people returned to areas thought to be cleared.
According to Abdul Qudos Ziaee, head of operations at Afghanistan’s Directorate of Mine Action Coordination, dogs can be a useful mine-detection tool if properly managed.
But in several areas contaminated with anti-vehicle mines, some agencies failed to use the canines correctly or handlers were improperly trained, leading to sloppy practice and areas of terrain left dangerous.
“Whether it was fault of the dog handler or the dog was not properly trained ... the mine will be missed and the negative consequence will be borne by civilians,” Qudos Ziaee told AFP.
Dogs can still be used to sweep large areas deemed “low threat,” he said, noting that procedures are currently being revised and new standards will be introduced in about a year.
At the MDC, handlers insist dogs are a better tool for finding mines than mechanical detectors, as they can sniff the explosives in non-metallic devices.
According to Ziaee, at least 1,432 people were killed or wounded in Afghanistan by mines and so-called explosive remnants of war in 2018.
Mohammad Wirwais, who works at the Mine Detection Center, was blinded by a mine while clearing terrain in 2008.
“I am fortunate and lucky, I have friends ... who lost their lives to mine explosions,” he said.
“I am good, thank God, I can solve my problems on my own, and I can work here too.”