Mexico City Pollution

Date: 2006
Source Type: Images


The sanitary and environmental conditions in Mexico City are notorious. About two-thirds of its residents have substandard housing and inadequate access to water, sewage, hospitals, and schools. Mexico City also has perhaps the worst air quality of any urban area on earth. The thick layer of smog visible in this photograph, the majority of which comes from automobile emissions, contains dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide and many other toxic chemicals as well. Although the percentage of car owners is less in Mexico than in the U.S., the state has encouraged consumers and industries to use gas-powered engines to fuel plans for economic growth. The government thus provides drivers with cheap gasoline (much of which is but poorly refined) to power cars that, to a great extent, would not meet the emission standards of the U.S.

Cheap gas cannot, of course, be blamed as the only cause of Mexico City's air pollution, but it indicative of the struggles to modernize that Mexico and other Latin American countries have faced during a century of enormous urban growth. According to Thomas Agnotti, a scholar of urban planning and the environment, Mexico City and other Latin American metropolises have experienced the same kind of massive urban growth as cities in the U.S., but Latin American governments have not had the resources necessary to prevent and ameliorate the sanitary and ecological results of urbanization. This is due in large part to the disparity between the economies of the two regions: whereas many U.S. capitalists made their money in the domestic market (thus contributing to more widespread national wealth), the export economies of Latin America provided little surplus money for the citizens of its own cities and countries. As a result, Latin American economies on the whole did not possess enough capital to regulate and improve urban conditions like the mass poverty found in many of the "informal" metropolitan suburbs (Angotti 1996).

Sadly, the problems of pollution and poverty are often mutually reinforcing. In Sao Paulo, for example, the country's largest petrochemical plant, which emits 1,000 tons of pollutants everyday, is located less than eighty kilometers from some the city's poorer residential areas. Children in these favelas near the plant have a mortality rate of 30% and about 80% suffer from respiratory problems. Poverty also aggravates environmental problems: dirt roads decrease air quality, old cars and appliances produce smog, and raw sewage is dumped directly into the city's streams and rivers. It should be kept in mind though that, on the whole, the U.S. and Canada produce four times more pollutants than all of Latin America and the U.S. is the world's leading source for CO2, one of the main factors accelerating global warming.

Reference: Angotti, Thomas. "Latin American Urbanization and Planning: Inequality and Unsustainability in North and South." In Latin American Perspectives, vol. 23, no. 4, The "Urban Question" in Latin America (Autumn, 1996), pp. 12-34.

CITATION: Smog and mountains in Mexico City. September, 2006. Image courtesy of