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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Dangerous Crossing

Air Date: Week of

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When the nation's security alert level goes from yellow to orange, traffic along the U.S. border with Mexico slows to a dead stop. Kent Paterson reports from El Paso, Texas that the result is intense air pollution in a small area, and it's a problem for people who have to spend time there.


CURWOOD: Each time the U.S. Department of Homeland Security declares a Code Orange terrorist alert, long lines of traffic build up at the U.S.-Mexico border as inspectors are required to open each car hood and trunk. But in El Paso, Texas, the traffic jam is more than an inconvenience. Federal agents say the heavy buildup of exhaust fumes is endangering the health of workers and the public. Kent Paterson has our story.


PATERSON: Jose Juan Aguilar roams the Santa Fe bridge between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, hawking foldout sunshades for cars. Aguilar says long lines are good for business but make him feel bad, especially during the warm months when smog accumulates.


PATERSON: With traffic waits sometimes reaching two hours or more during Orange Alerts, the issue of bad air at the bridges is becoming more urgent for officials on both sides of the border. Alma Leticia Figueroa is the director of the Environment Department in Ciudad Juarez.

FIGUEROA: [SPANISH] What we have here is a really small ecosystem, and the emissions here are hurting the healthy people who have to spend eight hours or more here for their work. People who work in Immigration, in Customs, people who are selling on the bridge--they are the ones most affected.

PATERSON: Figueroa is also irked that many of the dirty vehicles on the bridges are out-of-compliance U.S. junkers that end up being sold to low-income commuters from Juarez. Brad Gaetzke is the chief steward in El Paso for the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents several hundred U.S. Customs employees who staff the bridges. Gaetzke says his members get headaches and feel lousy, especially since Orange Alerts have become more frequent since 9-11. They filed 150 grievances over the amount of time spent on the bridge at inspection stations.

GAETZKE: If it’s like in the middle of July, and there is no wind, and the temperature is about 100 degrees, and cars are overheating, of course, you are going to have the heat. Plus, you are going to have the carbon monoxide coming off of that. Plus, sometimes we also have impurities that blow in from Mexico when they are burning paper and things like that.

PATERSON: The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) looked at the air around El Paso bridges shortly after 9-11. They have found Customs Inspectors were exposed to carbon monoxide in peak exposures lasting 30 seconds or less that were a cause for concern. When the measurements over an eight-hour shift were averaged, however, the amounts were not considered excessive. The same study noted that bridge pedestrians were exposed to carbon monoxide on a short-term basis, up to nine times the eight-hour OSHA health standard.

CLOUSE: Well, the problem, obviously, is the number of vehicles operating on the bridges that are at very low speeds, typically at speeds in stop-and-go conditions which really emit the largest amount of pollution.

PATERSON: Archie Clouse directs the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s El Paso office. Clouse says one of the main concerns is carbon monoxide.

CLOUSE: It displaces oxygen from the blood and can cause anywhere from just drowsiness to death, and all the symptoms in between. So, typically, with carbon monoxide, we’re talking about an acute concern.

PATERSON: In El Paso, the dangers of carbon monoxide couldn’t be more acute for one family. Michael Widfeldt is El Paso’s assistant fire chief. Widfeldt describes what happened on October 21st, 2001 when post-9-11 traffic tie-ups had the family of Lara and Francisco Valenzuela stuck for almost two hours on an international bridge.

WIDFELDT: They thought that their two children were asleep in the back of the pickup truck they were driving. When they got home they tried to wake them up to put them to bed, and that’s when they realized there was a problem.

PATERSON: Thirteen-year-old Erica and six-year-old Danielle were unconscious.

WIDFELDT: The two children that were in the back of the pickup were not breathing. Efforts were made to try and revive them. They were transported to the hospital and they were pronounced dead at the hospital.

PATERSON: It wasn’t the bridge traffic alone that caused carbon monoxide to build up in Francisco Valenzuela’s pickup. The exhaust system was faulty. But the delay was a contributing factor. Officials say they don’t have the full picture on air pollution at border crossings. In part, that’s because air monitors are often located a distance from these bridges and don’t register peak emissions. Experts could point to no comprehensive health studies focused on air quality at the international bridges. Gerardo Tarin is the director of environmental regulation in Ciudad Juarez.

Tarin contends that traffic backups haven’t worsened the overall quality of the local airshed, but he says more needs to be done to reduce the exposure of customs workers and other people on the bridge to very localized or micro-pollution.

TARIN: [SPANISH] We’re working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Mexican secretary of Public Health. We’re preparing a study that looks at heavy diesel vehicles on the bridges and how they affect the people that work there, like Customs agents.

PATERSON: Meanwhile, officials recommend that drivers crossing international bridges in these times of increased security keep their cars well-tuned for everybody’s benefit.

For Living on Earth, I’m Kent Paterson in El Paso, Texas.



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