Recently some friends visited me and my family here in Colombia. We had a great time, and I think they really got to see some special things in the state of Boyaca.
One day as we were running errands, one of my friends commented on the bad air quality in our town. He said the air smelled bad, and he could feel it burning his throat. I was really surprised, because I've never noticed this. When I first came to Colombia some years ago, I certainly took note of the bad air in Bogota. I even got violent allergies whenever I went outside, and these days I still notice the change in air quality when I go to the nation's capital. But in our smaller, windier town, surrounded by green fields and forests, I'd felt like the air was a lot better. Granted, our busier streets smell of exhaust, but for the most part the air seems clean. My friend's observation made me wonder if in fact I'm just accustomed to the pollution in my town. I hope not, because if so, it means my baby son is inhaling polluted air all the time.
What might be behind the ostensibly worse air pollution in my town as opposed to a place like Chicago? It could be that Colombia's emissions regulations are less strict or not well-enforced. This seems unlikely though, because you're required to undergo an emissions test every two years. Maybe there's an exception for trucks and buses, which belch out a lot of black smoke and seem to be responsible for much of the smell and pollution. Two-cycle motorcycles also are common here, which means we've got a lot of burning motor oil in our air, too.
On this note, more of Colombia's traffic is comprised of buses and trucks than in the US. Personal cars are not the norm here. This factor would lower air quality due to the prevalence of big diesel vehicles, but it means that we in Colombia emit less CO2 per person.
Or it could be that my friend is simply exhibiting what seems to be a common practice among people from the US: finding or imagining ways in which the US is better than other places. Maybe this tendency is universal, and everyone thinks his or her country is the best, but we from the US appear to have a real penchant for grading and judging places vis a vis our own homeland.
At any rate, if my town's air quality really is as bad as my friend thinks, then it's a real strike against the way we live. No matter how much personal responsibility my wife and I may take for improving our local surroundings, the overwhelming ambient pollution would be doing us and our baby a lot of damage. This would apply not only to vehicular air pollution, but also to things like lead in paint, toxics used in packaging, etc. We've always known that often environmental and health regulations are not very strict in developing countries, so you are subject to a lot of harmful stuff beyond your control.
My friend's impressions of our town's air quality are a very real illustration of how that increased ambient pollution affects people's lives.