Pollution in Medellín: a Major Concern for Expats Living in the City

Pollution in Medellín

Pollution in Medellín is a major concern for expats planning to move to the city as well as for expats living in the city.

Medellin does have a pollution problem as the city is located in a valley, with mountains surrounding the city, which do not allow easy dispersion of pollutants. So, pollution tends to stay in the metropolitan area.  This is similar to what happens in Denver in the U.S., which also is surrounded by mountains and has a problem with air pollutants.

But fairly regular rain in Medellín can help clean the atmosphere. Also, levels of pollutants in the city are not the same all the time and levels vary in different neighborhoods of the valley.

Several readers of the Medellín Living site have even provided some comments on this site about pollution in Medellín.  These comments included “air quality is some of the worst on earth” and “pollution is some of the highest worldwide”.

Pollution is one of the downsides of living in Medellín.  But there are many upsides, including the climate, low cost of living, good healthcare and good public transportation.

Pollution is a major concern of expats living in Medellín. Our Medellín Living reader survey in December last year found that pollution is the number two concern raised by expats living in the city, see the below graphic.

The above photo is courtesy of puntodevistardb.com.

Medellín Living 2016 Reader Survey Results, N=201

Medellín Living 2016 Reader Survey Results, N=201

Facts About Pollution in Medellín

First of all, pollution in Medellín is not some of the “worst on earth”.  There are actually over 600 cities and towns around the world with worse pollution than Medellín according to the World Health Organization (WHO).  Over 250 cities and towns in China and India have pollution that is worse than in Medellín.

According to WHO, in Latin America there are several cities and towns that have worse pollutant levels than Medellín.  This includes Lima, Peru; Santiago, Chile and several other towns in Chile; Monterrey, Mexico; Cubatão, Brazil; as well as several towns in Costa Rica that all have worse levels. Bogotá also has a pollution problem as it is also located in a valley.

Furthermore, the pollution level in Medellín varies in different parts of the metro area according to the city’s monitoring stations. The worst level of pollutants in the metro area tends to be found in El Centro, La Estrella and Itagüí and the lower parts of the valley.

Up the hills in El Poblado, Envigado and Sabaneta the pollutant levels tend to be lower.  So, it is possible to choose a neighborhood to live in Medellín with less pollution.

Ciudadanos Cientificos Mobile App showing pollution levels at monitoring stations

Ciudadanos Cientificos Mobile App showing pollution levels at monitoring stations

Pollution Monitoring in Medellín

Under Colombian law, all municipalities with a population greater than 50,000 inhabitants or those in which a problem of air pollutants is evident must have a monitoring surveillance system. Medellín actively monitors the pollutant levels in the city with several monitoring stations.  And the city takes action when pollution levels become worse.

You can see the current pollutant levels at monitoring stations found in different parts of the Medellín metro area online here.

Medellín also has the Ciudadanos Cientificos mobile app where you can see the current pollutant levels at monitoring stations in the Medellín metro area.  The app is available for Google Android and Apple mobile phones.

Particulate Matter Pollution

Particulate matter pollution, also known as PM, is a complex mix of very small particles, water vapor, and gases. Common small particles can include lead, dust, dirt, and sand. When these components combine, air pollution forms. The EPA regulates two categories of particulate matter for health and welfare reasons, which are used in pollutant monitoring systems worldwide:

  • PM 10 are coarse particles between 2.5 and 10 micrometers in diameter
  • PM 2.5 are fine particles that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter

Medellín typically has more of a pollution problem with PM 2.5 and rarely a problem with PM 10.  PM 2.5 comes primarily from combustion: car, bus, truck and motorcycle engines and coal- or natural gas–fired power plants are all major PM 2.5 sources.

The biggest cause of air pollution in Medellín is from vehicles (cars, buses, trucks, taxis and motorcycles), which reportedly cause 60 percent of PM 2.5 emissions in Medellín.  Since 2005, the number of cars in Medellín has reportedly doubled and the number of motorcycles has increased by over 500 percent.

Health Effects of Pollution

Pollution doesn’t impact everyone the same.  Older adults and children as well as people with heart or lung diseases are the most likely to be affected by pollution exposure.  Even if you are healthy, you may feel symptoms temporarily if exposed to high levels of pollutants.

Several scientific studies connect particle pollution exposure to a variety of health issues, including:

  • Irritation of eyes, nose and throat
  • Coughing and shortness of breath
  • Asthma attacks
  • Reduced lung functionality
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Heart attacks
  • Premature death of people with lung or heart diseases

Your body isn’t very good at blocking PM 2.5 pollution. These particles are small enough to bypass your respiratory system’s defenses, getting into your lungs, where they can even penetrate the bloodstream.

Elkin Martínez, an epidemiologist at Universidad de Antioquia, published a study last year linking up to 3,000 deaths per year in Medellín associated with pollution. This included 1,000 people that died from chronic lung disease, 500 from lung cancer and approximately 1,500 from cardiovascular disease linked to toxic gases and ultra-fine particles that pollute the air of the city.

What is Medellín Doing About Pollution

The city of Medellín actively monitors pollutant levels in the city and takes action when monitoring stations start to show a red status, which means that pollution has reached a level that is harmful to health.  Orange status at monitoring stations means that it has reached a level that is harmful to sensitive groups.

When pollution becomes a problem in the city, the actions that Medellín has taken in the past have included banning outdoor activities at schools, cancelling sporting events, restricting the use of private cars and motorcycles, warning residents to stay indoors and avoid outdoor exercise, closing the Olaya Herrera Airport in the city and even making the metro system free for a while.

The city is also working to rid the city of older diesel buses with much higher emissions.  The city has already replaced most of the metro feeder buses in the city.

If Medellín didn’t have its metro system, pollution in the city would be much worse.  The Medellín Metro system now transports well over 160 million passengers per year. The clean and efficient system saves over 178,000 tons of CO2 emissions each year while also greatly reducing accidents and traffic in the city.

Medellín has also been increasing the number of stations for its Encicla system of public bicycles as the city looks to increase bicycle use in the city.

Medellín also has a strategic plan in place with a goal to reduce the annual average PM 2.5 pollution level that was 25 micrograms in 2015 to 20 micrograms by 2020 though a number of projects.

The Bottom Line: Pollution in Medellín

Medellín does have a pollution problem due to its population with all the vehicles and its location in a valley surrounded by mountains.  But there are over 600 cities and towns in the world that have worse air pollutant levels than are found in Medellín.

Also, pollution levels are not the same throughout the metro area.  It’s possible to choose a neighborhood to live in the Medellín metro area that has lower levels.  We recommend using a mobile app or the website listed above to see pollution levels in different parts of the city.

What do you think of Medellín’s pollution problem?  

Like the story? Take a second to support Medellin Living on Patreon!
About Jeff

Jeff first discovered Colombia back in 2006 and has traveled to all the major cities in Colombia. He is fortunate to have lived over seven years in Medellín. He is also studying Spanish to become fluent.

Comments

  1. Ron Wegner says:

    Do Not sugarcoat the harsh reality and truth about how dangerous the air pollution problem is becoming here. The primary problem here is that corruption compounds the problem here and no matter how clever the government is to develop “Temporary” fixes the system is broken because bribery is so pervasive here that we see blatant disregard for every measure put into place. Until we fix the “Mal Cultura ” problem here people will totally disregard any fixes offerred up. My lungs cry out in pain many days of the month and I can assure you that my report is common. So many expats and Native Colombians agree that the problem is getting intolerable. As more people move here in search of refuge and work and the more lenders continue to give easy credit and flood the streets with more cars and motorcycles the problem can only get worse. Ask any doctor here if you want to know how serious respiratory diseases have increased exponentially over the last 10 years directly due to our air pollution. This is NOT “FAKE NEWS” Many of us are discovering that moving out of the Aburra Valley to higher elevations may be the only viable alternative and option to escape the poisonous air here in the valley.

    • Patrick Trussell says:

      Jeff, as a four year resident of Cuenca, Ecuador , I must say that we have our share of pollution problems also . The newest problem in Ecuador is the government says that it is about to start taxing all Gringo income at the rate of 18% .This noise is coming from the newly elected president ! I was hoping that Medellin would be my redoubt. I visited with you , in Medellin ,about three years ago . I was impressed with your city . Great article !
      We shall see , we shall see .
      Patrick Trussell / 4 years in Cuenca , Ecuador .

    • This article doesn’t look like it sugarcoats to me as it clearly states that pollution is a problem in Medellín. I think the article looks well-balanced. It clearly states the facts about pollution in the city and also that pollution doesn’t affect everyone the same.

      I live in Laureles and the pollution really doesn’t affect me. But an elderly neighbor is planning to move higher up to Rio Negro as the pollution in Medellín is effecting his health.

  2. Nice balanced article with some facts! I think Medellín needs to continue expanding the metro system so there won’t need to be more cars and motorcycles on the roads.

  3. Steve H says:

    I have been visiting Medellin several times per year for the last 5 years. I have only noticed air pollution the last two times I was there. I only noticed it visually, it did not bother my breathing. I always stay in Laureles which is low like El Centro. Obviously, I wish there was no pollution, but it is not a deal killer for me. I might change my mind if I lived in it full time.

    • Mark Manning says:

      I’ve noticed the air seems cleaner in Medellin, even though its actually much more noxious than other cities I’ve been too. Maybe the problem is that Medellin is very green with a lot of plants, so it filters out visible smog while still leaving dangerous amounts of small particulates.

  4. Important and timely information, delivered honestly – thanks, Jeff!

    Sure many cities, especially in China and India, are way more polluted, but nobody I know wants to retire there and ones who go there for business usually never overstay. Medellin is a totally different story as it attracts a growing number of North American retirees and self-employed, for a number of reasons which are too obvious to mention or rather repeat.

    Sure less cars and motorcycles on the streets is better, but as we are not yet in the era of solar powered electric cars and bikes, the real problem is that neither government nor population in Medellin, and throughout Colombia, is seriously consider quite simple and affordable solutions such as catalytic converters, catalytic mufflers, engineered silencers, diesel particulate filters, replacement catalyst elements, among others.

    According to Wiki: ” Although catalytic converters are most commonly applied to exhaust systems in automobiles, they are also used on electrical generators, forklifts, mining equipment, trucks, buses, locomotives and motorcycles. They are also used on some wood stoves to control emissions. This is usually in response to government regulation, either through direct environmental regulation or through health and safety regulations. ”

    If Colombian people demand the government to require catalytic converters to be installed on all taxis, trucks and buses, for the starts, corruption won’t stop this from happening. More to that, I am sure the government will only be happy to make money on taxing ones who fail to comply, and the corrupted ones may also use this opportunity to get their sweet kickbacks from manufacturers and installers of such equipment. New vehicles and equipment should only be allowed in the country only if they are properly equipped.

    People will start to breath easy, they will have less pollution triggered health problems which means savings for the health care system and overall healthier and happier population (unless they frequent western junk food establishments). Would that not be a win-win? 🙂

  5. Wolf662 says:

    I agree NO pollution in Sabaneta. None, best air I gave ever breathed. Poblado? Fake news that the air is better there. Worst pollution in the city.

    Been plenty of places with worse air than Medellin. It’s no big problem if you know WHERE to live.

  6. Great article, thank you. I value my health and do everything I can to keep myself healthy and am extremely frustrated by the quality of the air in El Poblado. Sometimes just walking on the street makes me gag the fumes are so strong and don’t get me started on those busses and trucks in Centro.

    Recently when we had the Red Alert and the 3-day Pica Placa thing was instituted I noticed that the air cleared immediately and beautifully. I place the blame for this squarely on the local government for poor regulations and enforcement.

    Ultimately, this will affect the economy, people just won’t want to live here and why should they when Colombia is full of beautiful places where the air is clean. As much as I love Medellin, I absolutely have this issue in my mind constantly and I am completely open to taking my money somewhere else.

  7. Good article on Medellin pollution.

    According to the below article.

    http://www.elcolombiano.com/antioquia/por-contaminacion-medellin-pierde-su-horizonte-YF3799634

    PM 2.5 is 160 micrograms of pollution in Medellin. Three times Colombia’s national average and significantly higher than the World Health Organizations international average of 25 micrograms of pollution.

    PM 2.5 above 150 is regarded as unhealthy.

    If Medellin’s PM 2.5 of 160 as stated in the elcolombiano article above is correct Medellin would be in the top 5 worst cities in the world for PM 2.5 air pollution.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_most_polluted_cities_by_particulate_matter_concentration

    • That PM 2.5 level of 160 micrograms in that newspaper article was in March last year when Medellín had a pollution problem. Typically in February to April each year, Medellín has more problems with pollution according to historical data.

      The annual average PM 2.5 level in Medellín in 2015 was reportedly 25 micrograms, so the average is much lower. The Wikipedia page you referenced uses annual PM 2.5 averages that were retrieved from the World Health Organization (WHO), so comparing a particular point in time is not a fair or accurate comparison.

      • According to the SIATA app 358. Centro ICA PM2.5 is currently 121.84 with many other locations scattered around the city at or around 100 micrograms. These reading are unfortunately now normal in 2017.

        The more publicity the growing pollution problem of Medellin gets the more likely the government will actually do something about it.

        • Hi Joe,

          Thanks. That ICA PM 2.5 reading from that Centro sensor of 121.84 is measured in iCA, not micrograms. 100 micrograms for PM 2.5 would be a red alert level in Medellín. The micrograms range for the orange pollution alert level in Medellín is 35.5-55.4 micrograms for PM 2.5. If you click on a sensor in the mobile app listed in the article above you can see the PM 2.5 microgram reading. I just clicked on the Centro sensor and it is currently reading only 34.84 micrograms for PM 2.5.

          Keep in mind that Centro normally has some the highest pollution readings in the city. Also keep in mind that February to April is a period during the year when the historical pollution levels tend to be higher in the city.

          • HI Jeff,
            Thanks for clearing it up for me. Comforting to know that it is not as bad as I had thought.

            None the less the government needs to impose tougher regulations on trucks and motor vehicle emissions within Medellon.

  8. Would someone please tell me how to accurately research pollution levels in various parts of Colombia. Thank you.

    • Jeff states that over 600 cities are worse off than Medellin.
      He is using the WHO data from 2014 which used 5 sensors. According to WHO Medellin PM 2.4 measurement is 26.
      If Medellin PM 2.5 measurement was 26 there would be no pollution problem.
      I would take the WHO figures on pollution in Medellin with a grain of salt.

      • The WHO data uses annual averages for PM 2.5. The annual average doesn’t change much from year to year and reportedly the average PM 2.5 measurement in Medellín was 25 in 2015. And the city has a goal to reduce the annual average to 20 by 2020 through a number of projects including replacement of old diesel buses in the city, expansion of the metro system, expanding the public bike system and many other projects.

    • Medellin has pollution sensors that you can see in real-time on mobile apps or a website as seen in the links in the above article. Unfortunately I’m not aware of the other cities in Colombia doing something similar.

      The 10 municipalities in Valle de Aburré, including Medellín, have a detailed operational plan for addressing critical episodes of air pollution that can be seen in this detailed presentation (in Spanish): http://www.metropol.gov.co/aire/Presentacion_Aire.pdf. This presentation contains much data including the growth of population, growth in the number of vehicles, a recent history of pollution levels in Medellín and the actions taken when there are pollution “red” alerts. As can be seen on page 90 of this presentation, the number of “red” alerts for pollution have been increasing over the past 3 years but the number of “orange” alerts are decreasing. Medellín also has a strategic plan in place to reduce the average annual level of PM 2.5 pollution in the city though a number of projects, which is briefly mentioned at the end of the presentation.

  9. geoffrey says:

    One of the comments here says that “bribery is so pervasive here that we see blatant disregard for every measure put into place”. The claim is plausible but no evidence is included to support it; not even anecdotal. I won’t be disappointed if there is solid evidence that air quality is damaged by bribery but such a charge deserves some back up.

  10. Peter Koz says:

    Medellin is a wonderful city. Unfortunately, pollution puts a dark cloud over the cities reputation (no pun intended). If the city took further steps – such as allowing Uber and Lift to enter the city, perhaps the use of cars would decline. I own two parking spots in my building but choose to use Uber or taxis so as to not contribute to both the pollution and traffic problems the city has. Uber itself does not help with their ridiculous “dynamic pricing” model which turns everyone off to Uber. Travis K needs to change Medellin management as I have never had worse service from Uber and I use it all over the world.

    • Could not agree more on both issues…

      The only substantial problems I have with Medellin are: 1. Rampant unchecked pollution (air and noise) by vehicles (especially busses and trucks + those insanely loud motorcycles) all over the city, and, 2. Often inept, unfair or inconsistent services provided by Uber (But, this is a whole other topic to be explored).

      If Medellin wants to cement the notion that they are truly a CITY OF INNOVATION, then I can think of no better place to start than tackling this problem that enshrouds every single inhabitant. The idea that Medellin is somehow this city of “Eternal Spring” is outdated, wishful thinking and frankly, misleading. To adequately address this issue will take real innovation and real GUTS.

      Since I came to Medellin a year ago (and do I love the city and it’s people), I am reminded, almost daily, of this pollution problem as I often awaken to a mild sore throat. Looking across the valley with the hope of seeing a clear future I am often met with a hazy reminder of my inaction to take care of a fundamental promise of health that I have made to myself. I’m absolutely looking for a solution. Do I actually choose to live in a city that is certified as toxic? Maybe.

      It’s an insidious problem, so it’s easy push it aside for more tangible priorities, but you have to think about it.

      • Medellín’s pollution problem has been extensively studied by the major universities in the city and many recommendations have been given to the city. Medellín already has a strategic plan in place with a goal to reduce the average annual level of PM 2.5 pollution in the city by 2020 though a number of projects, which is briefly mentioned at the end of this presentation (in Spanish): http://www.metropol.gov.co/aire/Presentacion_Aire.pdf.

        The strategic plan includes many things including increasing the public green spaces and trees per person in the city (like the big Parques del Río project); adding incentives to use natural gas for vehicles; expanding the metro system that uses electricity for the metro, cable car and tram lines and natural gas for the MetroPlus bus lines; expanding the network of public bikes in the city; improving the system of cargo transportation to use more efficient vehicles; replacing the old diesel buses used in the city; and many other projects. We’ll see if the city is successful in its plan to reduce pollution in the city.

  11. Pavlaki says:

    An interesting new finding from the UK where pollution levels are supposedly higher than both the USA and Latin America, is that hedgerows by the road absorb and convert traffic pollutants much more than trees, because they are at the level of the exhaust pipes. see http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-39943197. Interestingly, Medellin already has widespread hedgerows on many of the main roads where there are also pedestrians. This would make it relatively easy to develop further.
    This is not, however to make light of the problem. There are some definite “no go” areas for traffic fumes, and I have always thought that there needs to be stricter control of the many little busses, which are often hardly roadworthy. Medellin’s transport policy in action: the metro, tram, metro cable reveal a city which is tackling the problem, not a city crippled by corruption. Just look towards Bogota!

  12. Hola Jeff, Great thought provoking article. Medellin should be more agressive in encouraging vehicle owners to change to electric vehicles through incentives and subsidies. The city has been very innovative before , maybe they should start thinking outside the box again. Look at the two biggest problems people have living in Medellin , 1) Traffic & 2) Pollution . These can be addressed aggressively & effectively by replacing polluting vehicles with electric vehicles. Medellin has the ability to provide the power needed . Technology for electric motorcycles and automobiles is advancing rapidly and their is no reason why Medellin can’t adapt their vehicles to this new idea. Taxis running on gas engines can be gradually replaced with electric vehicles , once again with help from subsidies & incentives. Motorcycle growth of 500 % can be harnessed by implementing an affordable replacement program to exchange gas powered motorcycles for electric motorcycles. By addressing these two key issues I believe Medellin can “clean ” up it’s act very quickly and maintain it’s status as the most livable city in Latin America. At least it’s a start ?

  13. Tomi Pontynen says:

    I came to Medellin, more precisely to Copacabana little bit north of city, thinking to settle down here. Now, nearly three months later I have to admit this was an error. The reason is CONTAMINATION OF AIR:

    There is just one reason. I have asthma and first thought to be able to ventilate my lungs by going to mountain walks. But the fumes rise up there, as the towns and city are in a valley and the mountains prevent the air from moving freely.

    In two weeks I will move back to Guayaquil and pick up my Temporary Resident visa, for which I luckily got 60 days additional time to get.

    My asthma was never a big problem during altogether more than a year there (I was living in Salinas for 6 months also) and did not need medicines. Here I need and some days especially,

    I am very sorry, I like Colombia and the life here, but the only place I could live is the Atlantic Coast. Unfortunately, the rents there are out of question for me.

    There is a difference between Medellin and Guayaquil. in the latter winds from the Pacific clean the air at least couple of times a week, no mountains preventing it. With 4,50 dollars return (discount +65) I travel twice a week, 2 hours to Salinas and spend the day walking on western side peninsula, on open beaches, where the air comes straight from the Pacific. So lovely to breathe!

    I can’t, simply, live far from the ocean.

    Farewell beautiful lovely Medellin, I could cry now.

Comment Policy:

We strive for a positive, supportive community discussion at Medellín Living. Please use your real name. Comments with anonymous, fake or company names will be deleted. If it's your first comment or you include a URL, it will be held for moderation. Critical comments that serve to enhance the conversation are welcome; comments that serve to insult or demean will be deleted.


Speak Your Mind

*