Chile shuts down polluting industries, declaring health alert in Valparaiso towns

SANTIAGO – Chile has issued a health warning sparked by air pollution levels in the coastal towns of Quintero and Puchuncav, in central Valparaiso region, the environment ministry said in a statement.

Authorities also ordered local polluting industries to suspend operations, following hundreds of cases of residents showing signs of intoxication from high concentrations of contaminants in the air.

According to the Minister of the Environment, Carolina Schmidt, this decision “allows the suspension of polluting activities throughout the area”.

The government is looking for a permanent solution to the crisis, which has been decades in the making, Carolina told reporters, adding that “the government has taken every step to reduce such episodes in the area” but “you can’t eliminate more than 50 years of pollution in one month.”

Officials are mulling tougher emissions standards for sulfur dioxide (SO2) by adopting international norms.

Chile sends SOS to WHO after massive intoxication in Valparaíso region

The latest health warning will be implemented by the Ministry of Health in collaboration with the Environment in 3 axes:

1. Daily monitoring of air quality and ventilation forecasting – a responsibility of the Ministry of the Environment.

2. Operational Planning: The industries in the area must adapt their operation to reduce emissions in periods with poor ventilation forecast. This must be implemented by the Seremía de Salud, which will urgently request the operational plans from the industries once the Health Alert Decree comes into force and may suspend the polluting activities.

3- Strengthening of the Control: The Health Alert Decree allows the Health Seremi to redirect and focus resources to oversee compliance with operational plans. This is particularly relevant in this area where poor ventilation and major operating restrictions occur during the night period. The accumulation of pollutants emitted during the nighttime operation of industries in bad ventilation days is reflected in peaks that are perceived by people during the mornings and until noon, when ventilation improves.

The alerts were issued after numerous students fell ill in recent weeks, forcing local authorities to suspend classes and launch emergency treatment centers.

On Monday, school children in the two towns were due to return to school after the government moved to call off a yellow-level alert, a decision locals and Chile’s Medical College were against.

President Sebastian Pinera recently pledged to clean up communities contaminated “with arsenic” and other pollutants, including “carbon and hydrocarbon” runoff from area industrial plants. “We have a strong presumption that arsenic could be the cause of the high incidence of cancer that affects many inhabitants in these two towns.”

According to the country’s environment minister, the alert will remain in effect ” until the implementation of the most permanent and definitive solutions to the problem of air quality that the area suffers”.