Colombia is a country located in South America, officially known as the Republic of Colombia. It is counted as a transcontinental country, with a majority of its landmass falling into the northern portion of South America as well as having land territory in North America. It is bordered by other countries such as Brazil, Venezuela, Panama and Bogota.
In terms of its air quality and pollution levels, Colombia as a whole comes in with some fairly consistent readings of pollution levels, and whilst they are not perfect and could certainly stand to improve, they do not see the massive spikes in PM2.5 that other countries around the world are subject to, often seeing large disparities between certain months of the year due to seasonal events such as farmland burning or other such similar occurrences.
Colombia came in with a PM2.5 reading of 14.61 μg/m³ in 2019, putting it in 64th place out of all the most polluted countries worldwide, coming in behind countries such as Hungary and Lithuania (14.57 μg/m³ and 14.49 μg/m³ respectively) but also faring better than other countries such as Brazil and Angola (15.77 μg/m³ and 15.90 μg/m³) which took 63rd and 62nd place.
Colombia's PM2.5 reading of 14.61 μg/m³ put it into the ‘moderate’ pollution bracket, which requires any reading between 12.1 to 35.4 μg/m³ to be classed as such, showing that it is indeed on the lower side of this bracket, with improvements in its air quality by only a few units enough to move it down a notch into the ‘good’ ratings bracket of 10 to 12 μg/m³, perhaps an achievable goal for the country over the next few years if the right initiatives are taken.
PM2.5 refers to particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter, which is approximately 3% the width of a human hair. Due to this extremely small size, it presents a great danger when inhaled by people, and as such is used as a major component in the calculation of overall levels of air quality, or US AQI. There are larger forms of it such as PM10, which whilst they present salient health issues, are not as dangerous as their smaller counterparts.
Out of the 12 cities registered for air pollution readings in Colombia, the majority of them came in with very similar readings of moderate pollution readings, with one city (Barbosa) coming in with a ‘good’ pollution reading of 10.7 μg/m³, and its cleanest city Guarne coming in at 8.5 μg/m³, making it the only city in Colombia to fall within the World Health Organizations (WHO) target goal of 0 to 10 μg/m³, giving it a very good quality of air and a majority of months coming in under 10 μg/m³. The most polluted city in Colombia over 2019 was Sabaneta, which had a PM2.5 reading of 22.4 μg/m³, once again in the moderate pollution bracket.
Colombia would see its pollution arising from many different sources, and as with all countries across the world many of these would remain the same but with a few major difference’s endemic to a particular region of the world, and as is often the case in south America, the abuse and destruction to areas of rainforest can figure largely into their pollutive problems, not just regarding air quality but an overall environmental issue, which in turn has knock on effects of air pollution levels.
Main causes of air pollution in Colombia would be emissions and fumes given off by vehicles, particularly those emitted by heavy duty vehicles such as trucks, lorries and buses. Many of these larger vehicles use heavily outdated engines, as well as running on fossil fuels such as diesel, or lower quality fuel in general that can produce much larger amounts of pollution and novel chemicals not seen in cleaner vehicle emissions. Traffic and vehicle pollution amount for the majority of the pollution seen in Colombia, particularly pertinent in the capital city of Bogota.
With a large amount of its population undergoing rapid urbanization, naturally there comes a population boom along with it, as well as an increase in infrastructure. This leads onto the next most pertinent source of pollution, which is emissions from factories. Besides cars and other vehicles running on diesel and low-quality fuels, factories and production facilities often rely on fossil fuels such as coal to provide their energy, which in turn puts out large amounts of noxious smoke, haze and other fine particulate matter.
With this rapid move towards urbanization occurring, naturally there is an exponential growth in the number of vehicles on the road, which is why cars and the like take the top spot for pollutive issues in Colombia, and indeed much of South America.
Other sources of pollution that are not as prominent (but still relevant) as vehicular or factory emissions would include ones such as the open burning of refuse or garbage, which besides containing organic materials can also contain synthetic or man-made ones. Others would include poorly maintained roads and construction sites, both of which can give off large amounts of finely ground dust into the air that can have a terrible effect on the health of Colombia's citizens, particularly when these finely ground particles are mixed with other pollutants. Dangerous particles known as ‘road dust’ can happen when naturally occurring materials such as dirt or gravel get exposed constantly to exhaust fumes, which permeates the fine particulate matter as well as sending it billowing into the atmosphere as thousands of cars drive over it, giving rise to more dangerous forms of PM2.5 and PM10.
To summarize, the main sources of pollution are vehicular and factory emissions, with other issues such as construction sites and road dust all playing a part in the elevated levels of pollution present in Colombia.
Observing the data taken over previous years, with more readings present in the capital city of Bogota, it appears that the overall level of air quality in the country has actually gotten worse by a marginal amount. This could be due to the introduction of newer sources of pollution readings, which could lead to skewed data results, or an actual decrease in overall air quality.
In the capital city however, an improvement was seen, with a similar marginal nature but still an improvement nonetheless. Bogota came in with a PM2.5 reading of 15.7 μg/m³ in 2017, followed by a further improvement in 2018 of 13.9 μg/m³. This then improved more so to 13.1 μg/m³ in 2019, showing a consistent increase in the quality of air.
Environmental issues in Colombia and indeed the whole of south America have become more prominent in recent times, with gradual initiatives and changes being put into play, although with still a fair way to go as mentioned before.
Colombia as a country came in with a PM2.5 reading of 13.90 μg/m³ in 2018, and then a reading of 14.61 μg/m³ in 2019, displaying the aforementioned slight worsening of numbers. As touched upon, this could be due to the adding of more cities to the country’s registry, or from mild fluctuations between pollution levels as can often be seen in countries and cities around the world.
The reading taken one year apart is not a huge cause for concern, but as with any reading that comes in worse in terms of air quality, the appropriate steps need to be taken to ensure that it does not continue on such a trend, with air quality being linked more and more to high mortality rates and accounting for a large amount of respiratory related hospital visits not only in Colombia but worldwide. And as such it is of utmost importance to keep pollution levels on a path towards improvement.
With a large amount of its pollution coming from sources such as vehicular emissions as well as from factories, the air would certain gases and particulate matter that arise from these industries. Pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (N02) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) would be released from vehicles, with larger quantities coming from the heavy-duty vehicles, most prominently the diesel-powered ones.
Nitrogen dioxide is the main offender arising from car exhaust, being found on both ground level readings as well as satellite ones, often correlating directly with how much traffic there is in any given area. There is such a strong link between the two that in many instances, high levels of nitrogen dioxide are strong indicators that there will be heavy traffic in the surrounding areas.
With both fossil fuels being burnt in factories and cars, other pollutants such as black carbon and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) would arise from their use, both of which are produced from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels as well as organic material such as wood or plant matter (that may occur in areas undergoing deforestation, as well as arising from open burn sources such as garbage being burnt in the streets, particular prominent in lower income areas where garbage collection is not as efficient as it could be).
Some examples of VOC’s would include chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde, both of which have serious health issues for those exposed to them, particularly over longer periods of time. Black carbon is a major component of soot and is often present in areas that see high traffic, as well as being seen visibly pushed out by the ancient heavy-duty vehicles that populate the roads, with their old and poor-quality engines putting out far larger quantities, way beyond what is considered safe.
Black carbon is particularly harmful to both human health as well as the environment, with known carcinogenic properties as well as its incredibly small size allowing it to penetrate deep into the corners of the lungs and cause a myriad of health issues. It also has a prominent effect on the environment as well, due to its property of absorbing solar radiation and converting it directly into heat, thus being responsible for increasing the temperature in any given area and affecting the climate.
Other pollutants that would be found in varying quantities in the air in Colombia would be ones such as carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), silica dust from construction sites as well as more dangerous pollutants such as dioxins, furans and metals such as lead and mercury being released from the open burning of synthetic materials such as rubber or plastic, which whilst not as prominent as other countries in the world, still occurs in Colombia.
Looking at the pollution readings taken in times past, one can see that living in Colombia would not be overtly disastrous on personal health, although it is important to note that whilst Colombia does not see the same catastrophic PM2.5 levels that a country such as Bangladesh or Pakistan may see (with yearly averages of 83.50 μg/m³ and 65.81 being recorded in 2019, putting them in first and second place), it must be stressed that any reading that exceeds the WHO’s target goal of under 10 μg/m³ may have possibly negative health effects, with both the number of ailments as well as the chances of them occurring increasing with a correlation to the pollution levels, with other small factors such as portions of the population being exposed to higher pollution numbers due to living in areas of high traffic or industrial areas.
With readings as high as 35 μg/m³ being taken in the city of Sabaneta, as well as highs of 24.4 μg/m³ in Bogota, possible health effects would include issues such as a whole host of respiratory related issues. These would be ones such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an umbrella term that includes within it many lung related illnesses such as aggravated asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis and emphysema.
Other conditions would include heightened instances of cancers, particularly that of the lungs, stomach and throat. Pregnant women are very much at risk, with elevated chances of miscarriage, premature birth as well as babies being born with a low birth weight all possible.