Why are my lungs burning?

Countries across Latin America and the Caribbean are figuring out that slashing the sulfur content of their diesel fuel can be good for people. Curacao is the latest to shift to 500 ppm (0.05%) diesel while in Chile one can buy diesel with as little as 50 ppm — a policy that it started in 2004 in Santiago and is extending the length country. (And the breadth, but that’s easier.) In Colombia, the nationwide maximum is now 500.

Governments have set 50 ppm limits in some cities in Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Colombia, Liisa Kiuru, executive director of the International Fuel Quality Center, said today in a phone interview. Her organization tracks fuel quality standards worldwide.

In Venezuela, we don’t need no stinkin rules. We pay with our lungs, rather than our wallets.

Venezuela has the world’s cheapest diesel, at 2.8 cents a gallon*, less than 1% of U.S. prices. This probably helps with economic development, to a point — imagine being able to take a 12-hour ride in a privately owned luxury bus with high air conditioning half-way across the country for $10. However, it also has a host of less desirable effects, including the lack of an incentive to cut truck traffic by using trains or proximity. And people use diesel generators rather than conservation in order to reduce demand on the power grid.

Perhaps the most insidious problem with the country’s diesel price is that it leaves Venezuelans breathing much lower-quality air. Our diesel is 0.5% sulfur, or 5000 parts per million. That’s 10 times higher than in Colombia, and 100 times higher than in Santiago de Chile. Most of the time you don’t notice the stench, even in Caracas, where a steady wind out of the east flushes our toxic cloud out to El Junquito and beyond. It’s only when trying to ride a bike or run on Francisco de Miranda or Urdaneta or Fuerzas Armadas, the big bus-choked avenues, that you realize just how thick the sooty, sulfrous cloud can be. Flying out of Caracas, you can see the plume from the Tacoa generating station, which burns not only diesel but 3%-sulfur fuel oil. I’ve seen the plume extend 75 miles (more than 100 km) to Valencia.

I’ve had construction going on next to my house for months. Now that I’m freelancing and home during labor hours, I have the pleasure of experiencing the toxic gas cloud from the steam shovel all day long. My lungs burn. It’s frustrating to know that the technology and money exists to clean this up, with benefits that range from lower public health costs to, who knows, maybe more Olympic medals — but it doesn’t happen.

* (5.4 bolivar cents/liter) * (3.78 liters/gallon) / (7.3 bolivar cents/U.S. cent) = 2.8

7 thoughts on “Why are my lungs burning?

  1. Mike

    Caracas’s revolutionary fuel subsidy is not only terrible for the environment, for the national budget and for quality of life (pollution, traffic jams, noise, accidents….), it’s also a tremendous subsidy for the rich and for corporations.

    Viva la Revolucion! (in a Hummer)

  2. Quico

    You know, I remember when I was in Caracas I once spent a week working on an article on the increased incidence of respiratory problems in Caracas due to particulate matter and other ground level emissions. I was never able to finish it: I couldn’t find any proper research about it.

    Which tells its own story. After all, it must be possible to quantify the number of asthmatics dying yearly due to this crap. Nobody seems to bother to, though…

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  4. Mamarracho

    Interviewing pediatricians, geriatric practitioners and neumonologists might at least get you some feel for the situation. A lot of parents I know have to regularly nebulize their kids for various lung ailments. In Maracay we have to deal with not only vehicle emissions, and bushfires, but fires in the surrounding landfills … the air smells of burnt plastic. Ministry for the Environment says our air is just dandy.

    1. sapitosetty Post author

      I didn’t include it in the post, but there was the time I asked then-Environment Minister Yubiri Ortega whether the country had any plans to implement low-sulfur diesel, and she said they monitor the air and it’s fine. I said, sure, I realize the air is often fine, but I’m asking about the diesel. She got very agitated and said that was the responsibility of the Energy and Oil Ministry. I asked whether she foresaw any emissions controls on refineries and she said that, too was for the Energy and Oil Ministry. Then she stormed out of the room. I have many ideas about why she might have been so sensitive about it, but I have no way of knowing.

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