Saturday, January 26, 2019

Is it time to worry about San Miguel's air quality?

Retired people have a lot of time and tend to compare worries with one another, mostly so they can worry some more. Among the local retirees, I'd say healthcare is at the top of the worry list, as in who-died-from-what, and who is the best doctor for whatever ails someone. That's followed by money concerns, revolving around San Miguel's rapidly rising cost of living.

Then, among San Miguel left-tilting groupies—that is, the majority of the expat population—comes politics: When is the guy with fly-away orange hair going to be deposed/impeached/forced to resign, before he completely ruins the country and possibly disrupts the southerly flow of Social Security checks?

These topics are endlessly recycled, usually over lunch or dinner, until, eh, conversations get pretty boring.
But a week ago I received an email from a friend who is concerned about air pollution in San Miguel, something that had never crossed my mind, and which I found difficult to believe. There might be something to this new worry.

Is the air a little dirty or is it just my imagination?
 A weather map forwarded by this friend showed that on Jan. 22, the air in San Miguel was rated as "unhealthy". As I write this, on Saturday, July 26 at 2:15 p.m., another map, which uses a six-tier Air Quality Index that goes from "Good" to "Hazardous", San Miguel's air quality is ranked as "Moderate," right below "Good," for a pollution score of 53. Take heart, though, that at that moment the air quality index in Kabul, Afghanistan, was 287, which must feel like sucking on the tailpipe of a '57 Chevy Impala.

And yet, compared to bigger and closer cities, the air quality in San Miguel is not that great. On the AirVisual app, today San Miguel's comparative air quality is 43; Mexico City 63; San Antonio, Texas 30; Chicago 16, Houston, 28; and nearby Querétaro, 30. In this arbitrary grouping, only Mexico City's air was worse than San Miguel's. One could factor in all sorts of variables, including the specific pollutants in the air, but it still surprised me that Houston and Chicago had cleaner air than San Miguel.

What could account for San Miguel's relatively dirty air? At this time of the year, when it's bone- dry and windy, airborne dust could be to blame, along with smoke from constant brush fires rolling over the countryside, accelerated by the wind. Or dirtier air could be blowing in from more polluted neighbors, though Querétaro, a much larger and industrialized city, scored only a 30. Another possibility is that San Miguel's topography, sitting in a valley and surrounded by mountains, might tend to trap dirty air.

My guess, and it's only that, is that the frenzy of new construction and truck traffic in San Miguel might be a factor, as is the increased traffic of all kinds, caused by growing tourism. On weekends, the town's Centro is choking with out-of-state cars and tour buses, mostly idling or just crawling along.

I'd heard complaints about San Miguel's air before but didn't pay much attention, primarily because it didn't seem to affect my nose or lungs. More obnoxious, particularly to my eyes, are the fumes from the ubiquitous gas-fired, unvented fireplaces used for heating here. But looking at some of these numbers, I'm starting to think all the local worrywarts may be on to something, though I can't imagine what the solution might be. 

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