Air pollution is responsible for 50,000 deaths every year in Brazil. In São Paulo alone, 6,400 residents lose their lives due to health complications caused by dirty air. São Paulo has pollution rates twice as high as World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations. The WHO’s exposure limit for particulate matter is 20 μg/m3 (microgram per cubic meter of air). This limit is surpassed in every monitoring station the city has, with some coming close to 40 μg/m3.

Pollution causes a higher mortality rate than traffic (two times higher), breast cancer (five times) and HIV (seven times). The Paulista School of Medicine estimates that 51,000 people will die from pollution-related causes on the periphery of the state capital by 2025. Also, economic losses due to pollution will be of over BRL 22 billion in the next eight years. With such scary numbers, one could think that this is a public health issue that affects all Paulistanos, no matter what. But according to recent research, you would be wrong.

Bus passengers that travel long distances are more exposed to pollution than drivers or subway passengers. Another difference is found depending on where you are on the road. Bus lanes, bus stops, and big avenues are worse for health when it comes to air pollution. According to Maria de Fátima Andrade, a professor at the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences of the University of São Paulo, by looking at individual cases it is possible to see that some people are even more exposed to pollution than the—already excessive—average.

Distance equals exposure to pollution

Some of the initial results show that perception about exposure to pollution is unequal. On average, Ms. Andrade said, the data does not highlight those who are more exposed to pollutants, in other words, citizens who make longer commutes because they live in peripheral neighborhoods and rely on buses—as the subway network does not yet reach the outskirts of greater São Paulo.

In four routes connecting the central area to São Paulo’s farthest-flung neighborhoods, the subway was the means of transportation which caused the least exposure to particulate matter (between 12 to 17 μg/m3). Buses and cars show similar levels: a minimum of 17 and a maximum of 28 for cars, and 35 μg/m3 for buses. Therefore, those who need to spend more time using public transportation are more exposed.

“This shows that even from the point of view of pollution there is no equality in São Paulo,” said the researcher, in a speech she gave at Fapesp Week New York, promoted by the Foundation for Research Support of the State of São Paulo. São Paulo residents spend, on average, three hours commuting every day. The majority relies on public transportation: 47 percent use buses, 22 percent drive, and 13 percent ride the subway, according to NGO Nossa São Paulo. The data also shows that up to 70 percent of jobs are in the central area of the city.

Her team is already working on new developments based on the data they found. Named Astrid, the project will compare the metropolitan regions of São Paulo, London and Randstad South (Netherlands). The aim is to identify processes that have an impact on social differences, particularly those related to transportation, air quality, and mobility.

SocietyDec 15, 2018

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BY Diogo Rodriguez

Rodriguez is a social scientist and journalist based in São Paulo.