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.
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.
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?