Invisible Problems

Waiting in line in Nogales, Sonora to cross the U.S./Mexico border – as vendors walk by selling brightly lacquered miniature guitars and newspapers flashing graphic photos – the Talking Head’s upbeat tune “Air” plays in my head. Lead singer David Byrnes ironically poses: “What is happening to my skin? Where is that protection that I needed? Air can hurt you too.”

And in Nogales, it certainly can. Air quality exceedances – when air quality surpasses EPA levels for Clean Air Act designated pollutants – can threaten sensitive populations or, when more severe, the health of all Nogalenses. These exceedances are common, as Nogales, Arizona was designated a non-attainment area for both PM-10 (particles 10 micrometers in diameter in size or less) and PM-2.5 (2.5 micrometers in diameter or less); and the city continues to experience PM-10 exceedances. On this windy afternoon, tightness in my breathing feels exacerbated by the dust content and heavy exhaust in this border line.

Nogales, Sonora is a teeming border city with an official calculation of 225,000 residents (researchers claim the population is closer to between 350,00 and 450,000).  It dwarfs its sister city, Nogales, Arizona, which has only 21,000 inhabitants. Though the wall neatly delineates the two towns, the airshed, like most environmental issues on the border, does not adhere to political boundaries.

Nog 1Photo credit: Lily House-Peters

In Nogales, our University of Arizona vehicle is part of the second largest source of air pollution in the area – vehicles, many U.S.-bound trucks hauling vegetables, fruit, and other cargo. While many perceive maquiladoras (assembly plants) to be the predominant contributor to poor air quality, the principal source is actually dust from unpaved roads and devegetated areas, followed in descending order by auto emissions, wood burning stoves (and fires to warm homes in the winter), trash/waste burning, and maquiladoras/factories (Lai et al., 2011).

Nog 2Photo credit: Lily House-Peters

The city receives a steady flow of people coming to work in the maquiladoras or to cross to “el otro lado” (the U.S., to reunite with family and gain employment).  Due to the cost of renting or owning a home, many have historically built homes in informal neighborhoods largely situated on the steep hillsides on the outskirts of the city.  Much of the city has lost its vegetation and the water table is diminished.  Upon this degraded landscape, settlement practices, erosion, strong winds, and heavy auto traffic generate massive amounts of dust.

Kaika (2005) suggests, in reference to human-environmental flows, looking at the “political ecology of the urbanization of nature” (Kaika, 2005, p. 25). Nogales, and more broadly border towns, are spaces of transit – with pulsating flows of resources and contaminants, and cheap disposable labor employed to meet global assembly demands  – these factors have produced a specific set of issues.  Everyone faces harsh environmental conditions but very few people can be held responsible in this binationally regulated space. While a major push spearheaded by the municipality to pave roads in the city is underway, the issue is a bit of a Catch-22. More roads will simply attract more traffic.

Similarly, the newly expanded Mariposa border crossing, which intends to reduce the hours trucks spend idling at the border, will likely draw additional traffic from other, slower ports of entry. Moreover, trucks from deep within Mexico or the United States are not usually the vehicles that actually carry goods across the border. Local trucks and truck drivers, a fleet comprised mostly of tired diesel engines, are the middlemen of border transport. Their primary job is to pick up cargo waiting in warehouses in Nogales, Sonora then carry it, inch by inch and hour upon hour, across the border to be dropped off at warehouses on the other side. Consequently, the warehouse industry is the largest employer in Nogales, Arizona.

Contradictory, illogical
During this trip we were fortunate to meet with Don Sergio: a prominent environmental leader in Nogales. Sergio emphasized that many of the pressing air quality issues were deeply intertwined.  He first highlighted the lack of infrastructure for pedestrians, forcing many to drive.  He also noted the contribution of uneven urban growth, explaining that as people look to move to the periphery of the city, landowners aiming to sell plots to developers are preemptively clearing all trees from the landscape.

Nog 3Photo credit: RJ (one of the authors interviewing Don Sergio)

Sergio addressed this doubly negative trend: “The only thing that absorbs carbon dioxide, without contaminating, is the tree. The tree is the only factory of oxygen in the whole world. And what are they doing? On one hand, provoking more, helping facilitate more use of the car, because they pay all the [… ] different fees [taxes]. But they [cars] contaminate a lot.  And on the other hand they assassinate the only thing [trees] that absorbs the venom that the automobile emits. Contradictory, illogical.”

A little bit about the science
The start to 2013 saw ominous threats for the respiratory health of Nogalenses, with the AQI rating pushing into the Red Zone at 161. The Air Quality Index is the U.S. EPA standard measurement for aggregate air quality health risk. The measurement encompasses the five major regulated contaminants in the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Ratings of 100 and up pose some level of health risk. The EPA states for Red (151-200): “Everyone may begin to experience some adverse health effects, and members of the sensitive groups may experience more serious effects.” Nogales’ highest ever AQI reading of 221 peaked on January 1, 2007, which is categorized as “Very Unhealthy” and highlighted by the EPA as producing “health warnings of emergency conditions.”

Nogales, Sonora and perceived lax Mexican environmental laws and regulations are often pinpointed as the sole contributors to this contamination. Yet the border and its associated political economy play a largely unaddressed role in enabling this problem. It is precisely through the rapid process of urbanization, linked directly to the U.S. markets and demands for cheap food and commodities, that economic growth is allowed to occur at the expense of the local environment. Both residents of Northern Sonora and Southern Arizona are paying the consequences in terms of environmental and physical health while large maquiladoras and others on the supply chain benefit, access to cheap veggies year round is secured, and fast-paced urban growth continues without proper planning or oversight.

Sarah Kelly-Richards and Richard Johnson are graduate students at SGD.

Kaika, M. 2005. City of flows: modernity, nature, and the city. New York: Routledge.

Lai, O., and Delp, B. 2011. Air pollution outreach in Ambos Nogales. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology.


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