December 19, 2011

Air Pollution in Cuenca, Ecuador — A Semester Abroad

December 19, 2011 - Isabel Kuniholm (‘12) reflects on her semester abroad.

December 19, 2011

I spent my spring semester of 2011 studying abroad in Ecuador with seven other Lewis and Clark students. I lived in Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city located in the Andean highlands, for four months. Before I departed, I began an independent study project focused on air pollution, health and public awareness in Cuenca. Although I could not find very much background information on air pollution in Cuenca, I was able to find a lot of applicable information about air pollution in other Ecuadorian cities such as Quito. Therefore, I was excited to go to Cuenca to see if air pollution is actually a major problem there and what, if anything, the local government and citizens are doing to improve air quality conditions. In Cuenca, I hoped to conduct interviews with local government officials or with professors at the local Universities about air pollution. I was also interested in finding any type of information (pamphlets, posters, ads) available to the public that discussed the health risks associated with exposure to air pollution.

After spending a few weeks observing traffic congestion and frequently walking through huge clouds of black bus exhaust throughout Cuenca, it was clear to me that air pollution was a problem. However, after reading a few articles related to air pollution that I found in the local newspaper, El Mercurio, I discovered that air pollution had only been acknowledged as a problem in Cuenca since 2007. This was shocking, but explained why almost no one at any of the Universities in Cuenca specialized in or studied air pollution. I was able to contact one young man, Esteban Balarezo, from the University of Azuay to interview. Mr. Balarezo was one of the only people in Cuenca who currently studies air pollution. Mr. Balarezo explained that 85% of air pollution in Cuenca is caused by vehicle emissions and the other 15% is caused by industrial emissions. In addition, he said that the highest concentrations of carbon dioxide and particulate matter pollution are located throughout the historic center of the city because the streets are too narrow to accommodate heavy bus and vehicle congestion. Furthermore, the center of the city is also full of street vendors and pedestrians who are therefore exposed, daily, to high levels of vehicular pollutants that are harmful to their health. He also stated that the citizens of Cuenca are not aware that their private vehicles produce pollution because they do not produce black clouds of exhaust like the city buses do.

Overall, my interview with Mr. Balarezo was very informative and allowed me to access the one air quality study conducted in Cuenca in 2009 and other websites and information that I would not have been able to find on my own. From my study, I can conclude that air pollution is a problem in Cuenca that needs to be seriously addressed by the local government and environmental agencies. Also, future policies need to include educational campaigns to increase public awareness about air pollution and its direct connection with personal vehicle use. Furthermore, there are many other environmental and structural factors that effect how serious air pollution is. For example, air pollution is severe in the historic city center because the streets are too narrow and therefore vehicle exhaust pollutants are trapped in the streets and inhaled by pedestrians and vendors.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Cuenca, and hope that more studies are conducted about air quality and health in the future.