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Where the air is clear: Mexico City enjoys life with less smog

May 10, 2010 |  3:08 pm

Popo volcano afp I stopped in surprise a couple months ago, in early spring,  while crossing a pedestrian bridge over the roaring Periferico highway on Mexico City's westside. I looked up to see an unfamiliar white form shimmering in the distance to the east — the snow-capped Popocatepetl volcano.

For decades, this active peak rising almost 18,000 feet over Mexico's teeming capital has been mostly shrouded behind a layer of smog. Lately, though, the "Popo" peak and its twin the Iztaccihuatl volcano are peeking through the pollution, even during the current dry season, when the smog is at its worst.

Indeed, the AFP news agency and the Washington Post report that air quality in the Federal District has improved markedly in the last decade. The city, governed by leftists without interruption since 1997, has implemented aggressive measures to combat air pollution, from a successful fast-lane bus system to a European-style public bike program that allows commuters to rent and drop off city bicycles at various rack stations in different locations.

The result is a steady rise in days per year where ozone levels are at acceptable levels. The sky is clearer, the air more pleasant, it is OK to be outside for longer periods of time.

While the D.F., as Mexico City is often called, may no longer carry the banner of being the world's "most polluted," the metropolitan region still has a long way to go before being entirely free of unhealthful pollutants for its 20 million residents. In recent days, as Mexico City experiences a withering heat wave, the city's "contingency alert" has been in effect due to higher-than-normal pollution levels. Under the alert plan, certain vehicles are prohibited from being in circulation, temporary limits are placed on the manufacturing sector, and many outdoor activities are suspended.

Still, D.F. natives who remember the dangerously smoggy 1990s will tell you breezily, "This ain't nothing." Fifteen, 20 years ago, the legend goes, the air was so bad pigeons would drop from flight stiff and lifeless — poisoned by pollution.

— Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: The Popocatepetl volcano southeast of Mexico City. Credit: AFP

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