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Air quality in Brazil: what’s at stake with the change in standards

A silent and almost invisible menace, that slowly chips away at our health over time. Air pollution is a major cause for concern when it comes to life in the city – and not only the major ones –, as all cities, without exception, are affected. Even though it causes thousands of deaths per year, it is a subject that the Brazilian government has neglected for far too long. Specialists agree, Brazilian legislation on the issue is outdated and modernizing it would be the first step towards public policies for controlling and improving air quality.

We have been trying to clarify doubts surrounding the topic based on the work by doctors, environmental agencies, legal experts and researchers who have been immersed in the subject for years. Soon, Brazil will be publishing a resolution set to update air quality standards, though many specialists believe that, instead of carrying the debate forward, it represents continued stagnation. Understand what’s at stake in this debate.

Outdated legislation

In 1989, upon establishing the National Air Quality Program (Pronar), for the first time in history, Brazil demonstrated concern and established measures to monitor air quality as a function of the states. The following year saw the publication of the first legal provision resulting from Pronar – Resolution 03/90 –, which defined national standards for air quality, and which remain in effect today.

The definition of standards falls to the National Council on the Environment (Conama), an advisory and deliberative board for the National Environment System. It assists the government in studying and proposing the direction of government policies concerning the exploration and preservation of the environment and natural resources. The entity’s plenary is a representative collegiate of federal, state and municipal bodies, the business sector and civil society, and it is there that regulations and standards are defined that are compatible with the environment, health and quality of life for the population.

Almost three decades later, little has changed. The standards are the same despite the gains in scientific expertise regarding air pollution. Only eight Brazilian states (Rio Grande do Sul, Paraná, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Espírito Santo, Minas Gerais, Goiás, and Bahia) monitor their air quality, some limited to certain pollutants and further hindered by only a handful of stations.

Brazilian air quality standards are as much as three to four times more permissive than the safe limits defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2005. The fact is, society generally has no idea about the quality of air being breathed. Changing the standard doesn’t solve the problem, but it does provide the population with insight into the real situation and allows governments to take more effective measures in mitigating pollution.

The proposal under consideration at the Ministry of the Environment

Following campaigns and pressure from doctors, environmentalists and specialists for a review of legislation, in 2012 the subject of air quality standards was once again on the agenda of the National Council on the Environment – Conama. After years of discussions, seminars and debates, a review was finally drafted for resolution 03/90 and approved in April this year by the Technical Board for Environmental Quality and Waste Management, responsible for this issue within the Conama.

According to the text approved at a plenary meeting, new air quality standards would be adopted in four phases, with the last being the standard stipulated by the WHO. Phase PI-1, which would commence with the publication of the resolution, establishes a Particulate Matter (PM10) limit of 120 µg/m³, which is far higher than the 50 µg/m³ benchmark standard.

The proposal states that “Air Quality standards (PI-1, PI-2, PI-3, PF) will be adopted sequentially, based on an assessment conducted every 5 years by Conama”. And it is precisely this point that has been so hotly criticized. Without establishing goals or deadlines, the definitions are meaningless and fail to secure public commitment to solving the problem. The only effective commitment is that the issue will be assessed every five years.

With flexible deadlines and goals, and no forecast of any sanctions, “pollution becomes institutionalized”, according to Carlos Bocuhy, president of the Brazilian Institute of Environmental Protection (Proam) and a member of Conama during the public hearing at the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office (MPF) at the end of May. The MPF has also questioned the text and called for a public hearing to debate the issue.

Even the Federal Attorney General, Raquel Dodge, defended the imposition of targets and deadlines in order to attain the air quality standards recommended by the WHO. “It is up to the State to implement public policies so that these minimum air quality thresholds are met”, she affirmed in a video.

The table below depicts the different phases (PI-1, PI-2, PI-3, PF) established in the resolution draft and its parameters. PF is the WHO Reference Standard, outlined in blue. The red block highlights the atmospheric pollutants, Ozone, and Particulate Matter, some of which continue at highly permissive concentrations when compared to the PF that indicates safe levels.

During a public hearing at the MPF, Carlos Bocuhy presented the graph below, which shows the disparity in the emergency standard established in the proposal when compared to France. While the French have declared an emergency at a concentration of 80 µg/m³ in 24 hours, in Brazil the acceptable value is 120µg/m³ and would only be considered an emergency at 500 µg/m³, a value 10 times that of the 50 µg/m³ considered safe by the WHO. The French are even studying drastic measures such as making public transport free in Paris as a way to deal with the issue.

Evangelina Vormittag, director and president of the Health and Sustainability Institute (ISS), also participated at the hearing and shared a study in which the organization compared annual measurements of PM10 concentrations in cities from the state of São Paulo with the standards adopted by the State Environmental Company (Cetesb) (reviewed in 2013) and by the WHO. Considering the Cetesb standards, all the municipalities of São Paulo state subjected to measuring have annual values within the acceptable quality standards. However, if the parameters considered are those of the WHO (green line on the graph), all the cities would present air quality considered unsafe for their populations. In other words, lenient standards provide a false sense of security, when in reality the population is breathing low-quality air.

The next step in the discussion

A proposal for a review of Resolution 03/90 has already been discussed and approved with amendments through Conama’s Technical Board on Environmental Quality and Waste Management. In early July, the text will be submitted to the Technical Board of Legal Affairs (CTAJ), which will decide on the constitutionality, legality and legislative framework of the proposal.

Besides technical questions posed by specialists and actors from organized civil society, entities such as the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office will also deliberate on the final text from a legal standpoint. A request for examination by Proam under discussion at the CTAJ uses sections of the statement by Federal Attorney General, Raquel Dodge. During a public hearing held at the end of May, other state attorneys manifested their opposition to the proposed update of the resolution, arguing that Conama has the duty and obligation to argue in defense of the environment, something not made clear in this case.

In the view of Federal Prosecutor José Leonidas Bellem de Lima, the proposal approved by Conama cannot be sustained from a technical and scientific point of view and falls short of the minimum standards for air quality recommended by the WHO. Federal Prosecutor Fátima Borghi, representing the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office at Conama, also spoke out, affirming that political and economic interests seem to prevail in the decision.

Should the draft be approved by the Technical Board for Legal Affairs, the resolution will once again be introduced at the Conama plenary for final approval and implementation.

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