Expert: Chile must end firewood culture to lower pollution levels

Air pollution obscures buildings and houses in the city of Santiago, Chile, on March 15, 2019. EPA-EFE/Alberto Valdes

Air pollution obscures buildings and houses in the city of Santiago, Chile, on March 15, 2019. EPA-EFE/Alberto Valdes


The use of firewood for cooking and heating in south-central Chile is a deeply rooted practice and also the reason why several of its cities are among the most polluted in South America, an expert said.

“It’s going to be very difficult to change the culture in that region. Firewood for cooking, as rustic as it might seem, gives homes a special warmth. People unite around wood-burning stoves” and that is a very old tradition, said Dr. Nelly Alvarado, a public health specialist at Santiago-based University of Chile.

Alvarado said that while “firewood culture” is widespread in regions such as Los Lagos, La Araucania, Maule and Bio Bio, it is time that residents realize that this type of fuel is harmful to people’s health and even more so if the wood is damp.

But Alvarado, who also is the public health coordinator at Santiago-based Diego Portales University’s Medical School, stressed the difficulty in eradicating this practice, noting that Chile’s Health Ministry and Environment Ministry have a role to play but that a fundamental cultural shift also is required.

According to a report by environmental watchdog Greenpeace, the southern Chilean cities of Padre Las Casas, Osorno, Coyhaique, Valdivia, Temuco, Linares, Rancagua and Puerto Montt, as well as Chile’s capital, Santiago, are the nine most polluted cities among a sample of urban areas spanning that country, Peru, Colombia and Brazil.

Published by IQAir Air Visual, the study assessed air quality on the basis of concentration of PM 2.5 (fine particulate matter), an air pollutant regarded as extremely harmful to health when levels in the air are high.

The study, which measured the density of PM 2.5 in cities in those four countries, considered a level of 60 micrograms per cubic meter or higher to be “unhealthy.”

Coyhaique was found to be the most polluted, with a level of 166.8 micrograms per cubic meter in July 2018.

Alvarado said pollution is a high price to pay for economic progress.

“More construction, more vehicles. That all means more pollution, but there’s also the paradox in which progress hasn’t reached rural areas yet there’s a great deal of pollution due to that deeply ingrained custom of using firewood,” she said.

Although Santiago also is among the region’s nine most polluted cities, Alvarado said that capital, home to 7.2 million inhabitants, “now has much more breathable air than it did 25 years ago.”

“With all the measures that have been taken ... there’s been a big reduction in the level of fine particulate matter, and Santiago’s emergency services no longer find themselves overwhelmed with children wearing masks and having trouble breathing like in years past,” she added.

The city, however, does face a new threat from the explosive growth in building construction, according to Alvarado, who said the dust generated at construction sites is a hazard to human health.