Air Pollution in Cuenca Ecuador

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					                                                                              Isabel Kuniholm

                                                                                April 13, 2011

                             Air Pollution in Cuenca, Ecuador

       Despite regulations and modern air quality standards, poor air quality in urban areas

is still a global phenomenon. Today, pollutants emitted from modern motor vehicles are

more harmful to the environment and to humans than pollutants emitted from other

activities. Vehicles emit many different pollutants into the air that are toxic to humans and

to the environment. Some of these pollutants include benzene, carbon dioxide, carbon

monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter. High concentrations of

these pollutants are often found in cities because of rapid urbanization, increased use of

vehicles, and extreme traffic congestion. According to the WHO, there are about 2 million

air pollution related deaths per year worldwide (WHO, 2008). Air pollution is currently a

huge problem in many large cities in South America, where the number of vehicles owned

and used in cities is incrementally growing, and will continue to increase in the future. 

       Improving air quality in South American cities is a pressing issue because exposures

to air pollutants from vehicles can cause respiratory diseases among other medical

problems that are especially serious in children. In Ecuador, both the capital city of Quito

and the third largest city of Cuenca currently suffer from poor air quality problems. While

air pollution has been acknowledged as an issue in Quito since the late 1990s, it was not

recognized as a problem in Cuenca until 2005. Over the last six years, several different

programs have been set up to study air pollution in Cuenca and to help improve air quality

in the future. Some of these programs include La Red, a program which focuses on

monitoring air pollution levels by installing air quality monitors throughout the city and a
program called CUENCAIRE, which focuses on reducing vehicle emissions by revising old

vehicles with the current emissions control devices. These programs are still fairly new in

Cuenca and therefore it is too early to say if they are helping to improve air quality;

however, I argue that in order to improve air quality in the future, the city needs to enact

programs that focus on public education about the problem of air pollution and the

associated health problems. This is because greater public awareness of the issue at hand

will make air quality policies more effective and will encourage the public to change their

consumptive polluting habits voluntarily. 


Brief History of Development in Ecuador:                                                        

       To begin, air pollution is a very modern and new problem in Ecuador, partially

because of its late history of development and modernization. In the 19th century, Ecuador

still lacked basic infrastructure and communication systems such as roads (Hurtado, 53). In

fact for most of the 19th century, there was only one road that connected the coast with the

highlands and most roads that existed were not maintained, precarious and practically

impassable by any carriage or coach. According to Hurtado, “…highland roads could only

be transited by mules and horses, which were the only means of transportation, compatible

with the nature of the soil and the condition of the roads” (Hurtado, 55). The lack of decent

road systems between the coast and the highlands made it extremely hard for people,

merchandise and materials to be transferred between the port city of Guayaquil and the

capital city of Quito and thus stunted Quito’s development as it was a very isolated city

until the early 20th century (Hurtado, 57). 

       By 1918, Guayaquil, Cuenca and Quito were connected by more decent roads and

railway systems. These improvements in transportation systems allowed Ecuadorians to
communicate more easily as well as encouraged the installation of industry, agricultural

production, and commerce (Hurtado, 82). Shortly after the road systems improved and

developed in Ecuador, the first automobiles and gasoline were shipped to Quito and Cuenca

in the 1920s. 

          During the second half of the 20th century, Ecuador finally experienced economic

growth due to the success of new main exports, bananas and oil (Hurtado, 114). Economic

growth in Ecuador allowed for development in infrastructure, new agricultural and

industrial systems and increased the amount of employment options throughout the

country. This also meant that the country was able to put more money into improving and

building roads in cities, towns and larger inter-provincial road systems, “with this,

automotive transportation came to be the principal means of communication” (Hurtado,


          The 1950s also marked the beginning of a period of rapid urbanization throughout

Ecuador. In 1950, only 29% of the population lived in cities, but by 1990, 55% of the

population lived in cities and by 2001 the percentage had increased to 61% (Hurtado, 116).

As populations in major cities increased in Ecuador, so did the number of cars, trucks and

buses. In Quito, vehicle usage has drastically increased since the 1990’s, when Ecuador’s

economy was expanding due to revenues from oil and because there was no tariff on

imported cars (Class Notes, 2/22/11). In 1994 there were 158,971 vehicles in Quito, and by

1996 the number had increased to 180,000 (Jurado, 380). Similarly, Cuenca also has

experienced rapid growth in the number of vehicles in the city since the 1970s. According

to a graph of vehicle growth in Cuenca, the amount of vehicles in Cuenca has increased

from about 13,000 vehicles in 1980 to over 100,000 vehicles in 2006 (Balarezo). Vehicle

expansion in Ecuador was particularly high throughout the 1990s because of economic
expansion due to oil mining and also because of tariff cuts on imported cars, which

increased the amount of cars imported into Ecuador (Hurtado, 118).


Background on Air Pollutants found in Cuenca:

       Today, as a result of rapid vehicle expansion, 85 percent of air pollution in Cuenca

is caused by emissions and toxins released from vehicles. The other fifteen percent of air

pollution is caused by toxins released from industrial areas in Cuenca. The main air

pollutants found in Cuenca are nitrogen dioxide (NO2), particulate matter (Pm10), sulfur

dioxide (SO2), Ozone (O3), carbon monoxide, and volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). 

       Nitrogen dioxide is one of the primary pollutants released from vehicle exhaust.

According to many studies and the World Health Organization (WHO), NO2 has been

known to cause many respiratory problems such as bronchitis and can cause reduced lung

function growth in children (WHO, 2008). In Cuenca, there is NO2 pollution found

throughout the city, but particularly high concentrations of the pollutant are found

throughout the city center due to the nature of the streets and high traffic congestion.

       Another pollutant that is primarily emitted from vehicle emissions and is found in

the city center of Cuenca is particulate matter. Particulate matter is formed when vehicle

exhaust condenses with road dust and metals. Fine particles are more detrimental to human

health because they can enter the body more easily and therefore cause more cardiovascular

deaths than larger particles (WHO, 2008). Short and long term exposures to particulate

matter can cause serious respiratory problems as well as lung cancer and pulmonary

       Sulfur dioxide is a pollutant released from industry, the combustion of fossil fuels

and motor vehicles. In Cuenca high concentrations of sulfur dioxide are found around the

Parque Industrial as well as areas in western Cuenca. A third pollutant, ozone, not to be

confused with the layer of ozone on the earth’s upper atmosphere, is formed by the reaction

of the suns UV rays with other pollutants in the air such as NO2 and SO2. This reaction

occurs especially on hot, sunny days with little wind and lots of traffic problems. This is

because the pollutants released from the vehicle emissions react with the UV rays and form

smog that is very harmful to humans. In Cuenca, ozone pollution is found in specific areas

throughout the city. There is O3 pollution found around Turi, over the northeast area of

Cuenca and even some in Cajas. Finally, volatile organic chemicals are both man-made and

naturally occurring chemicals that are released into the air from plants and from man-made

substances such as paint, solvents and other products used by industries. COV pollution is

found in the northwestern hills just outside of Cuenca.

Why is Air Pollution a Problem in Cuenca?

       If 85% of the pollution in Cuenca is from vehicle emissions, then it can be said that

most people are exposed to nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, as these are the main

pollutants released from vehicles. However, there are many other factors besides the fact

that there are hundreds of thousands of vehicles being used in Cuenca that contribute to and

make air pollution worse in Cuenca. One of the main problems is the construction and

layout of Cuenca’s roads in the historical center. The historical and center of Cuenca poses

many problems because the roads, all constructed hundreds of years ago, are very narrow

and therefore they cause many traffic problems because not very many cars can move

quickly through these skinny streets. Therefore, there are high amounts of vehicle
emissions being released into these narrow streets especially at times of high traffic

congestion. The construction of narrow streets also traps the pollution in the street because

the pollution cannot disperse. Therefore, pedestrians and vendors who work in the streets in

the center of Cuenca are exposed to high concentrations of harmful pollutants such as NO2

and PM on a daily basis.

       According to Esteban Balarezo, a young man from Cuenca who works for the

University of Azuay as well as the municipality of Cuenca and who studies air pollution in

Cuenca, around seven thousand vehicles and buses drive in the center of Cuenca each day

(Balarezo). He also stated that the nature of where people live and work also contributes to

the problem of air pollution. This is because most people work in the city center, but live in

neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, and thus they commute, many by car, into the

city central every day (Balarezo). Therefore, during the day not only are there thousands of

cars driving in the center producing the air pollution, but there are also thousands of people

being exposed to high levels of air pollution throughout the day.

       Furthermore, air pollution is also a problem in Cuenca because of the general

public’s attitude towards owning a personal vehicle versus using public transportation to

get around. Yes there is a fairly reliable bus system in Cuenca, however, according to

Balarezo; most people would rather drive their own car to work because it is faster, safer,

cleaner and easier. He said that many people think that the buses are unsafe and not clean.

Also, he said that most people only think the buses are responsible for causing air pollution

in Cuenca because they puff out large clouds of black smoke (Balarezo). Therefore, people

not only find commuting in their own private vehicle to be safer and easier, but also many

people think that by driving their own car they are almost being more “environmentally
friendly” because their cars do not emit black exhaust. However, this is a false assumption

because the personal vehicles are the primary polluters in Cuenca and there are many more

cars then buses. Also, since gas is highly subsidized and there are many programs that

make it easy for people to buy new cars in Ecuador, there is almost no incentive for people

to use public transportation as an alternative to a private car.

Air Pollution Policy and Control in Cuenca

       Clearly air pollution is a current problem that will only get worse in the upcoming

years unless the government is able to design effective, efficient policies that aim at

improving air quality in Cuenca. These programs need to include programs that focus on

education and public awareness of air pollution and the associated health effects, as this

issue cannot only be controlled through government policies; it also must involve the

general public. In the last four years many programs have been developed to help control

air pollution, but since many of these programs were just established, it is still too early to

conclude if they are being effective at all.

       One such policy is La Red, a program that has developed and set up eighteen

monitoring systems throughout the city of Cuenca. This program was developed in 2007

and to date, only one study has been released that discusses the results from the air

monitoring systems. Most of the 18 monitoring systems are specially designed tubes that

are used to capture and collect gaseous pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide,

and ozone (Informe de Calidad de Aire, 7). Then after a certain amount of days, the tubes

are collected and analyzed in a lab, and thus the levels of pollutants are recorded. There are

also three systems set up around the city that are designed specifically to capture and
measure the levels of particulate matter in the air. This program was developed in order to

carry out more in-depth studies of air pollution in Cuenca and to use this information to

help make environmental and air pollution control policies more effective in the future (

Informe…, 7). The study, which was released in July of 2010, expresses the pollution

levels recorded by the monitors as well as uses maps and graphs to visually show the

pollution dispersion throughout the city. Claudia Espinoza, one of the directors of La Red,

stated in an interview in El Mercurio that,

       Los parámetros de contaminación se mantienen bajo la Norma Ecuatoriana de
       Calidad del aire, es decir, que las sustancias contaminantes como dióxido de azufre,
       ozono, dióxido de nitrógeno, material particulado, monóxido de carbón y otros no
       han sido excedidos en la ciudad. El único espacio donde sobrepasa el mínimo valor
       es en el Parque Industrial (Contreras).
Although this program is important because the city of Cuenca needs to do more complete

studies of air pollution here before they can design effective policies and educational

programs, it should not be the only program used to control air pollution.

       One policy established in 2003 by the Ecuadorian government is called La Norma

Ecuatoriana de Calidad del Aire (NECAA). The primary objective of these air pollution

level standards is to protect the health of the citizens of Ecuador, maintain a healthy

environment, and to protect Ecuador’s ecosystems (Informe…, 12). The levels that were

determined for each pollutant are the maximum permissible levels and must not be

exceeded. When compared with US air quality standards as determined under the Clean Air

Act, Ecuador´s standards are mostly the same, although some of their standards were

recorded using different measuring systems, thus making a comparison hard. This initiative

is very important because it is necessary to have written air quality standards. However, one

problem with this type of policy, especially in a developing country, is enforcing the policy.
If industries and people do not follow these standards, and nothing happens to them, then

the written air quality standards are useless. Enforcement of laws and policies in Ecuador is

a problem, especially when it comes to environmental policies, “when and where a poor job

is done of enforcement and information-gathering, another critical feature of sound policy

is lost, which is dependability” (Jurado, 381). The establishment of the monitoring systems

in Cuenca and in Quito is a good way of monitoring air quality and making sure that it is

not exceeding the standards.

       A program that was very recently started in Cuenca, but that has been used in Quito

since 2004, focuses on vehicle revisions. In Quito this program is called CORPAIRE, and

in Cuenca it is CUENCAIRE. The goal of these programs it to monitor all vehicles in Quito

and Cuenca and to make sure that they all have appropriate emissions control systems. The

vehicles that do not meet current standards must be revised and if the operator fails to

revise his/her vehicle, they are ticketed. CUENCAIRE began revising vehicles in January

of 2011, and thus far they have revised about 19000 vehicles. According to Rolando Arpi, a

director of CUENCAIRE:

       En este primer semestre se ha revisado a buses de Terminal Terrestre, hemos estado
       en varias parroquias rurales y para el segundo semestre que será desde abril,
       revisaremos a toda clase de vehículo las luces, llantas, frenos, ruido, emisión de gas
       (El Mercurio, 2011).

This system has just begun in Cuenca, but in the future, it may be a hard program to

enforce and manage. A similar past program called Municipal Ordinance 3120 which was

enacted in Quito in 1995 can offer insight about the challenges that exist for vehicle

revision programs. Municipal Ordinance 3120 forced truck and bus drivers’ whose vehicles

did not meet the emissions standards at the time to either pay to have their vehicle revised,

pay an expensive fine (often equal to three months minimum salary), or retire their vehicle
from use (Jurado, 382). This ordinance was somewhat effective; however, one of the main

challenges was high opposition to the ordinance from bus and truck owners. One of their

main reasons for being opposed to this ordinance was because bringing diesel engine

vehicles into compliance with emissions standards makes the vehicle less powerful, which

many drivers found to be a terrible side effect due to Quito’s high altitude (Jurado, 383).

       Another problem was with the enforcement of this ordinance because it was

supposed to be partly enforced by the police force. This caused problems as the police

system is corrupt and therefore they often accepted bribes from vehicle owners who did not

want to pay fines or revise their vehicles (Jurado, 384). Also, many police were unhappy

with the ordinance themselves, as a large amount of police officers supplemented their

incomes with bus or truck driving on the side (Jurado, 384). Cuenca may experience similar

challenges with the CUENCAIRE revision program, as enforcement will probably be

spotty and unreliable and people are likely to find ways around revising their vehicle and

many will probably oppose it.

Challenges and Future Goals for Improving Air Pollution Policy

       The three programs addressed above, La Red, La Norma Ecuadorian de Calidad del

Aire, and CUENCAIRE, are all important policies, however they also do not address all of

the issues related to air pollution in Cuenca and are missing some key elements. For

example, one of the main problems that needs to be addressed in public transportation. If

the public transportation in Cuenca is improved, then it is likely that less people would feel

the need to use their own vehicle to commute. However, currently the bus system is not

functioning, as many people believe that the public transportation is unsafe, unclean, and

unreliable. Another problem that was previously discussed is the nature and design of the

historic center of Cuenca. The streets are too narrow and therefore cannot accommodate the
high numbers of vehicles that drive in the center daily. One of the main problems with this,

according to Esteban Balarezo, is that the center of Cuenca is a historic district and

therefore, necessary street revisions cannot be done, as they are historic. He said that there

have been discussions about making the streets around the old cathedral pedestrian only,

but he seemed skeptical that this would ever happen (Balarezo).

               Overall, one of the key elements that is missing from all of the current

policies and programs in Cuenca, is education to promote public awareness of air pollution

problems. The public needs to be more educated about the facts of air pollution, the

possible public health risks from vehicle pollutants, and about the alternative transport

options that are available. Awareness can be raised through education, pamphlets,

implementing better public transportation alternatives and providing better lanes for citizen

participation in decision-making processes. The idea is that if people are more aware of the

negative impacts of vehicle use, then they will be more likely to adopt environmentally

responsible behavior and demand collective change. Also, if the issue is framed as a public

health concern rather than just as an environmental concern, more people may be motivated

to change their own behavioral patterns because health is an often viewed as a more

“pressing concern”. Citizens will play a huge role in pushing the automobile and energy

industries to produce low-emission vehicles and sustainable energy because our

consumption patterns dictate what types of products will be produced and sold in the


       Ultimately, it is our consumptive patterns of driving cars that are responsible for

producing widespread air pollution and public health problems in cities, and therefore we

must participate and collaborate with the State and government to make effective integrated
policy decisions. It was impossible for me to find any information about air pollution and

health in any of the public areas around Cuenca, such as in hospitals, clinics, schools or in

any of the municipalities of Cuenca. Esteban Balarezo commented that this information

was simply not available but that the city wants to develop future programs that focus on

education. He also commented that the level of citizen awareness about air pollution is

relatively limited and that most people only connected air pollution with the buses because

of the black exhaust they emit (Balarezo). He also said that most people would not say that

their own personal cars produce pollution and that they only produce noise pollution. I

asked him about health and he said that most people would only attribute air pollution with

respiratory diseases, not any other health problems that are often associated with exposures

to air pollution such as chronic respiratory problems, conjunctivitis of the eyes and cancer

(Balarezo). A newspaper article in El Mercurio discussed the citizen’s opinions on air

pollution in Cuenca, and one man, Jesus Bermeo, commented that overall it is the

responsibility of the citizens of Cuenca to help control air pollution and respect the

environment because it is ultimately a result of the general public’s driving habits

(Contreras). Furthermore, clearly some people are informed about the problem of air

pollution, but until the majority of people in Cuenca are informed, this will continue being

a serious problem in Cuenca.



                                         Works Cited

Balarezo, Esteban. Interview by Isabel Kuniholm. Informal, March 21, 2011.
Contreras, “Calidad del Aire de Cuenca Sobre Balanza”, El Mercurio, accessed
       March 27, 2011,

Hurtado, Osvaldo, and Barbara Sipe. 2010. Portrait of a nation: culture and progress
                                             in Ecuador. Lanham: Madison Books.

“Informe De La Calidad De Aire De Cuenca”, CUENCAIRE, July 2010, 4-41.

Jurado, J, and Douglas Southgate. 1999. "Dealing with air pollution in Latin America:
        the case of Quito, Ecuador". Environment and Development Economics. 4 (3):

World Health Organization. Health Topics. Air Pollution. 2008.

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