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Air contamination & citizen monitoring





Listen to this podcast

 made by Shots de Ciencia, which is a tour around Bogotá, to understand air quality issues through a conversation with an environmental engineer and the medical school of Los Andes University.

In 2015 alone, an estimated 10,527 people died in Colombia as a result of exposure to airborne pollution. The cost of air pollution-related illnesses amounts to over 12.3 billion COP (3.18 billion USD) annually for the Colombian healthcare system. Residents of Bogotá are exposed to some of the most dangerous levels of air pollution in the country, which impact mortality rates, cause chronic health problems, and impact quality of life. This is part of a regional and global phenomenon; the World Health Organization prioritizes air pollution as the leading environmental health risk affecting people in the Americas. Exposure to air pollution and particularly PM2.5 contributes to heart disease and risk of stroke, in addition to respiratory illnesses such as chronic bronchitis and asthma.


Understanding PM


WHO reports that air pollution is the underlying cause of one fourth of all deaths due to cardiovascular disease or stroke and one of every eight deaths worldwide.

In Bogotá today, diesel transportation is the city's major source of air pollution. Thus while public transportation emissions and seasonal wildfires, recently exacerbated by climate change, affect all sectors of the city, those who live far from the city center and have long commutes on public transportation and those living near busy streets, especially those frequented by trucks, are disproportionately impacted. These risks are all particularly concentrated in the low-income communities of the city's southwestern region, especially neighborhoods like Kennedy, Tunjuelito, and Puente Aranda, as well as Fontibón in the west of the city, where industrial activity is most concentrated along with the attendant trucking. In this way, the social inequities that are built into the city's geography and development are compounded by the environmental injustice of uneven air contamination and exposure.


Public Health Impacts of Diesel Exhaust

Images of visible smog hovering above the city of Bogotá and the pollution created by the public transportation system and trucking.


On average residents of Bogotá lose more time stuck in traffic than any other city in Latin America. The average number of hours spent in congested traffic for commuters in the city during 2019 was calculated at 191 hours.

Further, these exposures are not reliably represented in government air monitoring data, because, while the Bogotá city government monitors air quality at 18 points in the city, the stations are placed somewhat distant from major thoroughfares and other direct sources of pollution. While these stations provide important baseline data, they do not capture the extent of air contamination exposure routinely experienced by many of the city's residents, especially the most vulnerable who are often in much closer proximity to roads, buses, trucks and sites of industrial activity. Additionally, one the city's poorest and most marginalized neighborhoods, Bosa, did not have a government monitoring station until October 2020. This underrepresentation of exposure is exacerbated by the fact that the government’s air quality monitoring network experiences extensive equipment outages and the fact that live air pollution data often becomes unavailable to the public at the moments of highest contamination, which is when citizens most rely on the data to make decisions to protect their health.

This video gives an overview of air quality concerns in Bogotá from the perspective of public health, legal, and environmental engineering researchers and advocates. They discuss the health impacts of air quality and the difficulties they face when trying to shape local environmental public policy. The documentary stresses the need to understand air quality as an environmental justice issue that unevenly affects different socio-economic groups in the city.

Official air quality monitoring data in Bogotá

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Posted on twitter by on 11/19/2020

This image shows an official visualization from the International Air Quality Index of the distribution of air pollution in Bogotá at a moment characteristic of long term trends. Stations in the southwest of the city register the highest levels of PM2.5. The two points in orange and red (one in the Puente Aranda district and one at the intersection of the Kennedy, Bosa, and Ciudad Bolivar districts) register levels of PM2.5 that are dangerous even to the short term health of many residents. The graphs on the left side visualize the last 48 hours of PM2.5 readings from the Puente Aranda station, located in the district with the most registered manufacturing sites in the city. The wealthiest area of Bogotá, in the northeast quadrant of the city, characteristically have some of the lowest levels of contamination. 

Follow this link to see air quality data in Bogotá in real time.

Population Density in Bogotá’s Districts

This map shows the location of the different districts of Bogotá and uses 2005 data to show the parts of the city with the highest density of population. We see that some of the most densely populated areas are the southwestern districts of Bosa and Kennedy, corresponding to those with the areas that have the poorest air quality and lowest income levels.

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Guibor Camargo Source 

License: Creative Commons 4.0

Historical data from Bogotá air monitoring study 2009-2018

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This figure shows the differences in air quality measurements between the various monitoring stations included in a study conducted by Mura et al. (2020). The yellow bars in these charts show the percentage of days that the measurements at the monitoring stations exceeded World Health Organization standards, for PM2.5 and for PM10. The two stations where PM2.5 readings exceeded WHO standards more than 50 percent of the time are located in the heart of the city's southwestern region where industrial and wholesale activity and trucking are concentrated. The Carvajal monitoring station is located in between the Bosa and Ciudad Bolivar districts, two of the areas of Bogotá with the highest concentration of low income households.







Click here to see the reference materials used in the research for this topic.



Learn more about our public engaged, participatory research process.



Find out ways to support local efforts and community-led processes and initiatives.


Understanding PM


Particulate matter, or PM, is commonly measured as an indicator of air quality. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), PM, which consists of a mixture of solid and liquid particles in the air, "affects more people than any other pollutant.” PM10 includes particles that have diameters of 10 micrometers or smaller, and PM2.5 includes particles with diameters of 2.5 micrometers or smaller. PM2.5 includes ultrafine particles like those in diesel exhaust that, when inhaled, reach the deepest parts of the lungs and can easily pass into the bloodstream. Significant exposure to particulate matter pollution has been associated with heart disease, respiratory disease, poor birth outcomes, dementia, and death.

Particulate matter is by no means the only airborne pollutant that has negative impacts on human health. Other pollutants that are often measured are ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and lead. These can have a variety of negative effects on human health. For example, ozone, sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides are all irritants that can cause or worsen asthma and other respiratory diseases. Lead is a neurotoxicant that kills brain cells leading to lowered IQ and neurobehavioral impacts; it provides an example of regulatory restriction successfully leading to lower levels of a contaminant given that lead has become less prevalent in air pollution in Colombia since the government restricted its presence in gasoline beginning in 1990. 

PM2.5 is, however, the main focus of our discussion of air quality in Bogotá on this website for two reasons. Firstly, because it is frequently cited by local, Bogotá-based experts on air quality from a number of fields as the most prevalent pollutant. And secondly, because it is what citizen activists and specifically the CanAirIO project have chosen to measure and to center conversations with policymakers around. While the relationship between PM2.5 and the other pollutants is complex, WHO describes it as “a common proxy indicator for air pollution,” and it is worth noting that particulate matter is often -- though not always -- a co-emission from the same polluting processes that produce sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides, especially those involving fossil fuel combustion, and can even be formed as a byproduct of the chemical reactions when these other pollutants come into contact with other common atmospheric substances.


Public Health Impacts of Diesel Exhaust

Diesel exhaust is a complex mixture containing carbon particulate with heavy metals and polyaromatic hydrocarbons as well as other toxic chemicals adherent to particles. More than 90% of the particulate in diesel exhaust is in the ultrafine size range which can penetrate deep into the lungs and easily enter the bloodstream carrying the adherent toxic chemicals with it. Diesel exhaust has been determined by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer to be a Group 1, known human carcinogen. It has been clearly linked to an increased risk of lung cancer. The evidence for the link to bladder cancer is suggestive but not yet proven. There are non-cancer health effects that include enhanced allergic responses, exacerbation of asthma and heart disease. Not all diesel vehicles produce the same emissions. In general, older, more heavily run engines in trucks rather than cars are the most polluting.

Recommended Further Reading and Viewing:   


This short article by the Bogotá-based legal think-do tank DeJusticia 

explains the dynamics of environmental injustice at play in the uneven distribution of and exposure to air pollution in Bogotá 


Real-time data from the Bogotá city government's air monitoring network is viewable on this map. 


This is a scientific study that measured PM2.5, equivalent black carbon, and carbon monoxide exposures on the TransMilenio. Note: the article is behind a paywall. Daniel Bernal, co-founder of CanAirIO, has also tweeted excerpts of this paper, which you can read here.  


This report by the Bogotá office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation expands on themes described on this website, such as the health impacts of PM2.5. It also describes how the framework of environmental justice has been taken up by and transformed by social movements in different parts of the (hemispheric) Américas and lays out recommendations for how to build environmentally justice public policy in Bogotá, based on meaningful citizen participation and incorporation of local knowledges. 

Air contamination & citizen monitoring


Understanding PM
Public Health Impacts of Diesel Exhaust
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