Mexican Proposes Smog-Fighting Hurricane

OYE, amigo. Want to hear the latest twist on thinning Mexico City's smog soup? It's "controlled energy hurricanes."

Humberto Castillo Martinez, civil engineer and head of the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party in the Federal District, is petitioning the city to give his invention an airing.

Mr. Castillo wants to build a ground-level incinerator, surrounded by a 100-foot-diameter circle of fans - robust ones, for sure - which would create a miniature tornado. The combination of rotating wind and rising hot air would punch a hole in the thermal inversion that traps noxious gases in the mountain valley, especially during winter.

Castillo admits his device is no substitute for longer-term measures. But on high-pollution days, he says, flicking the switch on a hundred or so of these whirligigs would drastically reduce smog indices - not to mention what they'd do for soggy laundry on clotheslines around town.

Although last year Castillo floated the idea of drilling huge holes in the mountains ringing the city to allow the smog to escape, he insists he's no fanatic.

Rattling off figures in "cubic meters per second," Castillo seems to have done his homework. He estimates operating costs for the mini-hurricanes at about $1 million per year. And he admits the noise from the fans' propellers could be a problem in this cheek-to-jowel municipality.

Castillo has asked the city to fund construction of a $50,000 prototype. For a metropolis in the midst of a $4 billion antipollution program, it seems like a small enough punt. City officials have agreed to "study" the mini-hurricane concept - they can't really afford not to.

For all but 11 days in 1991, the city exceeded international air quality standards for one or more pollutants, according to a report released Jan. 22. Ozone and suspended matter (combustion particles, heavy metals, fecal dust) were the worst offenders. Carbon monoxide norms were exceeded 20 percent of the year, up from 2 percent in 1988. The report blames greater gasoline consumption for the increases.

Of course, the city has a range of more down-to-earth measures to combat the problem. A newly created eight-member advisory commission has taken up its first chore: finding the quickest way to convert the entire public transport system to natural gas, which burns cleaner than gasoline. And on Jan. 20, the city launched an attempt to enforce a ban on all taxis operating in the nine-square-kilometer downtown area without a catalytic converter. (So far only 1991 models come equipped with this anti-smog devi ce.)

Meanwhile, there's no shortage of imaginative bandaids. For several months now, the Mexico Ecological Movement has been shuttling an oxygen booth around the city offering an escape from the fumes. But they've had few takers. A one-minute sniff of the pure stuff costs about two dollars - almost half the daily minimum wage. Most pedestrians seem content to inhale the adulterated but free blend.

Castillo, meanwhile, waits for the city fathers. He hopes they'll decide that at least part of the answer is blowing in the wind.

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