Environmental pollution is not peculiar to the industrial systems of North America and Europe. Destruction of the environment occurs wherever there is industrialization with no consideration of social and environmental costs, and industrial and technological development for private profit rather than social ends. This article indicates the depth of the problem of environmental pollution in Chile. Such problems are also associated with the concentration of activity and people in urban areas. One third of all Chileans live in the capital.
Santiago is an urban disaster. The city spreads like a rapidly expanding ink blot over the rich agricultural land of the province. Shantytowns constructed of makeshift materials by the increasing thousands of homeless spring up everywhere overnight. Older sections of the city deteriorate while pleasant new homes are built for the increasing numbers of the affluent. Traffic and air pollution become impossible as every middle-income family adds a car to its possessions. Chile concentrates it activity in Santiago. Such new industries as are developed usually locate in Santiago. Politics and administration spread out from the capital.
THE CONTAMINATED CITY
From Ahora I, Nº. 15, July 27, 1971.
LUIS ALBERTO MANSILLA
More than the smog that makes us cry and breathe with anguish threatens the health of the inhabitants of Chilean cities. The pollution of water and food, never the subject of campaigns or spectacular reports, is more dangerous and becomes more and more a dreadful enemy of life in the city.
The experts on this matter talk about ecology, which for the general public is only a high-sounding word. In brief, ecology is the adequate balance between living beings and the environment. The big modern cities, the indiscriminate use of technology, and the residue of the human conglomerate poison the atmosphere, alter the ecological harmony, and produce a series of physical and mental disequilibriums, besides damaging animal and vegetable life.
Santiago is a ghostly scene of ecological crisis. Considering the small size of the country, Santiago is one of the biggest and most densely populated cities in Latin America. In 1960, Santiago had little more than two million souls. Now the Census Office establishes that we are more than three million and that in 1985 we will be six million. This gigantic increase in population has not been accompanied by an achievement of means to take care of food, hygiene, water, and air.
We are precisely 9,280,000 Chileans: 6,550,000 reside in the cities and 2,730,000 in the countryside. Water is essential for survival and if it is not drinkable, threats of epidemics and diseases are frightful.
Now, how many Chileans have drinking water?
The situation can be summed up as follows: Urban population of the country with drinking water in their homes: 3,900,000 inhabitants. Urban population with easy access to drinking water: 1,780,000. Urban population without drinking water: 870,000. As to drinking water in the countryside, only a hundred thousand people, living in settlements of two hundred to one thousand inhabitants, have water from pipes. Two million four hundred thousand inhabitants from the countryside do not have healthy water at their disposal.
The population of the cities that has use of the sewer systems is 2,500,000 inhabitants. There is a lack of sewers for 4,050,000 people.
Pollution by sewage is very serious. There are no adequate plants for the purification of water in any of the big cities. Most of them are obsolete or overused.
If everybody knew that the water he is drinking is polluted with human excreta, he would throw away the contents of the glass horrified. But so it is. Sewers are mistaken for water pipes and this explains many bacterial, parasitic, and viral diseases that seem at first to be of mysterious origin.
Typhus has become worse during recent years; there are between six thousand and seven thousand cases yearly; half of the afflicted are from Santiago. In many cases, vegetables are sprinkled with waste waters. Fecal bacteria do their work patiently.
Fifteen Thousand Tons of Gas
In addition to the water there is the contaminated air. All big cities suffer the same evil, but some have already created their defenses and have no problems. The human being vitally needs oxygen and a clean atmosphere. But during 1969 alone, fifteen thousand tons of sulfur dioxide fell over Santiago. This is an irritating gas affecting the respiratory tract and one of the most important agents of atmospheric pollution. Smog is part of the landscape of the capital of Chile. The city is wrapped in these winter days with fog that has no relation to climate, but is from chimneys, exhaust from cars, the indiscriminate burning of leaves and rubbish, and smoke from factories located amid very populated areas. The geological conditions of the valley that was so highly praised by Pedro de Valdivia  also contribute to the pollution of the air. In the long run, chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, and the death rate increase.
Be Careful with Food
The foods we normally eat can be disease carriers, starting from their very origin. Many people eat meat from sick animals and vegetables polluted with poisonous substances or harmful seeds that might be mixed with them by accident. No close and strict control exists to make businessmen comply with sanitary regulations, and they care only about what they can sell, even knowing that the merchandise is not in good condition.
Only 76.4 per cent of the total number of places in the country where food is processed or handled are considered to be satisfactory. The National Health Service examined 47,554 products in 1969 and established that 9 per cent were not fit for consumption.
The slaughterhouses that exist throughout the country (more than four hundred) lack adequate sanitary control of the meat they send to the market. Trichinosis cases are quite frequent, and last year there were six hundred cases of hydatidosis among people consuming meat. These diseases could be avoided if the "profit-making places" were under the control of appropriate specialists.
Refuse and Pesticides
The residents of Santiago and of other Chilean towns daily produce a huge amount of refuse, which has an uncertain destination. There is no place to burn garbage, and refuse is conveyed to the outskirts, generally to spots located near settlements or at heights that favor the spreading of epidemics and other calamities. The municipality's cleaning departments generally work in a deficient way. Many of these corporations do not have the means to free neighbors from the evils of refuse. The National Health Service supplies sanitary additives and recommends that all refuse collected be pressed, buried, and sealed with a layer of earth. It is no solution to dump it into the sea, because the sea food would be dangerous to consume. Lately the municipalities have agreed to ask the National Health Service to help them find a solution to this problem. All kinds of projects are studied, but we should have no illusions about industrialization, because there is no gold mine in rubbish. At the most, fertilizers can be produced that are no better than those already on the market.
Finally, there are the pesticides. Farmers need to protect their crops from manifold pests that threaten them. Cows eat grass sprayed with chemicals and the milk is contaminated. The same happens with the other animals and of course with garden produce as well. The results are alarming. Pesticides are as harmful to life and health as polluted water, food, and air.
To Avoid Diseases
One of the subdepartments of the National Health Service is dedicated to the protection of health. It is directed by Dr. Horacio Boccardo, editor of the Cuadernos Médico-Sociales (Social Medicine Journal) of the Medical Association. The campaigns that must be organized far exceed the lean budget they have at their disposal. Only 3 per cent of the three billion escudos for health is assigned to prevent diseases.
"Traditionally," claims Doctor Boccardo, "money has been spent in treating patients and not in fighting the causes of diseases. It is a mistake that is highly expensive and that we are now mending. The common people wisely say: 'It is better to prevent than to cure.' There is a medicine that the public does not see and that we have to put our shoulders to in the present Chilean process. The ecological crisis is an alarming result of lack of foresight. And we must learn from it. Until now, the country has paid no attention to pollution problems. Happily, a national commission against the pollution of the environment has recently been set up that intends to face the matter with all the means at its disposal and with other means sought in international organizations. But this is not all there is to fight against. Our duty is to protect the complete health of the Chilean people and to become implacable guards against insalubrity, epidemics, and all the factors that may mean avoidable disease in the future. A true scientific and socialist mentality cannot ignore the importance of the protection of health. However, those who lack foresight, and think that sick persons must merely be cured, must still be fought against. Struggle against death starts before this makes its appearance."
Dr. Boccardo agrees with U Thant, who, in calling for a World Conference on the Environment, which took place in Stockholm in 1972, made an ominous warning: "If the present trend continues, life on this planet could be endangered."
1. Conquistador of Chile in the sixteenth century.
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