“I think I’m getting the black lung, Pop.” (Derek Zoolander)

We need rain, desperately. Or some pretty powerful winds. The skies are so full of pollutants that you can literally taste the air. Gak. According to one air quality study, inhabitants of Sao Paulo breathe substandard air 259 days a year.

When we moved here in April, Sao Paulo had just enjoyed several weeks of cleansing rain, and the sky was crystal clear.

This past week, the air has been so bad that our eyes water and I’ve developed a niggling cough at the back of my throat. Dry air with a heavy dose of smog. This is what the sky looked like this morning.

Notice how you can’t even see a lot of the buildings on the near horizon. Notice also that we’re smack dab in the middle of it here on the 24th floor. The forecast calls for rain later today, and tomorrow, but we were also supposed to have rain in the past two weeks and it never materialized. I’ll believe it when I hear the swish of tires on the road below us.

Air quality in Sao Paulo is reportedly one of the worst in the world. This pollution and poor air quality are caused by 24-29 million people and some 8 million vehicles (including a constantly running omnibus system, replete with 3-carriage buses on some lines).

According to studies, an air quality measurement of 1-3 is low in pollutants, 4-6 is moderate, 7-9 is high, and finally 10 or more is very high. Sao Paulo today must be in the 9-10 range.

Sao Paulo is flanked on one side by mountains and on the other side by the sea. The surroundings of Sao Paulo make it a beautiful location, but also contribute to the pollution problem, much in the same way Los Angeles suffers, with the mountains locking in the pollutants until the wind shifts. Consequently, Sao Paulo has the distinction of being one of the lowest-rated cities in air quality in the world, which is seen in the health problems of many of its citizens, especially the children.

Children are especially vulnerable to breathing problems caused by air pollution, though seniors are also at risk. The poor air quality is even dangerous to unborn children, as found by a study done by the UCLA Department of Occupational and Environmental Health. Air quality in Sao Paulo specifically was considered in this study, due to the fact that carbon monoxide was found in the umbilical cords of several babies of nonsmoking mothers. Carbon monoxide can cause fetal death and other problems associated with oxygen reduction in the womb.

Adding to the vehicle emissions problem is industry pollution: there are some 40,000 different industries in the state of Sao Paulo. All of these issues come together to increase the particulate levels, as well as the carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide levels in the air, which can cause smog and other environmental problems.

Air quality is not the only issue in Sao Paulo, however. The two rivers that cross the city, the River Tietê and River Pinheiros, are also gravely polluted. Action is being taken to clean up these rivers to help make them safer for the citizens of Sao Paulo, and perhaps, someday, even a site for dinner cruise boats. So much still needs to be done, but at least they are making a start.

Yesterday, Scott and I watched a show about ecological housing, which gave me an idea for a project when I return from my visit to California. I’m going to build a plant wall, a modular shelf unit upon which I can stack plants to form a living air purifier. We have a plug-in model now, but how much better to have a living wall of plants to cleanse our air, and give the high-rise room a feeling of outdoors!

I’m so excited! I’ll have Scott design the modular piece, and I’ll either build it myself or have it made (since we have so few tools). Meanwhile, I’m going to start accruing plants. I figure it’ll take 50 or 60 small plants. I’ll have to leave the plants behind when we move, but the unit can go with us, since we’ll likely be living in big cities for the next decade or longer. It’ll be worth the money we spend on plants to have freshened air!

This immense city needs more to be done about its air quality problem than is currently being done. As air quality improves, so, too, does the quality of life. And then, prosperity can reign, and Brazil can take pride in their largest city. But that day is not yet at hand.