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Beijing - shrouded in gloom

By John E. Carey - posted Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Despite six days (as of July 26) of forcing Beijing motorists to drive on alternate days last week, the air pollution index rose from a reading of 55 on Sunday to 110 on Friday. Readings over 100 are considered unhealthy for children, seniors and those with allergies or asthma.

“For the first four days since July 20, they were good days. For the last two days, they were not,” said Du Shaozhong, deputy general director of the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau. “In the last few days there have not been significant rainfalls or winds,” Du said. “And the weather conditions in the last few days were not conducive to the diffusion of airborne pollutants.”

When Beijing bid for the Olympics in 2001 it said its air would meet World Health Organization (WHO) standards.


China’s National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, is seen through pollution in Beijing on Thursday, July 24, 2008. Authorities began strict new measures this week, including taking half of the city’s 3.3 million cars off the road, in an effort aimed at reducing chronic air pollution before the Olympic Games open on August 8. (AP Photo/Greg Baker)

The BBC put this to the test using a hand-held detector to test for airborne particles known as PM10. They found that the city’s air failed to meet the WHO’s air quality guidelines for PM10 on six days out of seven. These particles are caused by traffic, construction work and factory emissions. They are responsible for much of this city’s pollution. On one of these days, the pollution reading was seven times over the WHO’s air quality guideline.

Remember when the air pollution in Los Angeles was so bad that the city seemed shrouded in gloom? That’s Beijing today.

The current weather conditions are acting like a gigantic bowl over the city, holding air pollution in instead of sweeping it out.

Some Olympic-class runners in China for training are heading for home. One told our Hongli Jia, “I would love to have a gold medal. But in this I cannot perform.”


“I wouldn’t expect a world record in the marathon in Beijing,” says Marco Cardinale, a doctor who advises the British Olympic Committee. “The issue isn’t just air quality, but the combination of heat, humidity and bad air.”

Many athletes didn’t come to Beijing to train because of the bad air.

“There is no other reason but to stay out of the pollution. It’s definitely to avoid the air,” said Reed, who if he qualifies will be training with the other US triathletes on South Korea’s Cheju island. “This air [in Beijing] is just so terrible for your body.”

Here is some of the Washington Post’s report by Maureen Fan in Beijing:

“While uncontrollable factors such as the weather have worked against the city, many problems are entirely man-made. The largest contributing factor to Beijing’s air pollution is vehicle emissions, Du has said in the past. Thanks to growing public demand and friendly government policies toward car manufacturers, Beijing adds more than 1,000 cars to its streets every day.

“Despite the new figures, Du argued that the capital’s air quality was actually better compared with the same period last year because the concentrations of major pollutants - such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide - were reportedly down 20 per cent.

“Beijing does not make public data on two of the most dangerous pollutants that can harm the respiratory system - ozone and fine particulate matter. The latter has been found to enter the bloodstream and cause heart attacks and strokes in sensitive individuals.

“In a last-minute push to help clear the skies, the government imposed a series of Olympic-related restrictions that kicked in Sunday.

“In addition to mandating alternate-day driving based on odd and even license plate numbers - which is supposed to remove 45 per cent of the city’s 3.3 million cars from the streets - Beijing opened Olympic traffic lanes, stopped all but essential truck traffic, staggered work hours, added 2,000 buses, beefed up subway service and halted all construction work involving earth, stone and concrete.

“Since Sunday, the city’s air pollution index readings have been 55, 65, 67, 89, 113 and 110. Last Aug. 8, a year before next month’s opening ceremony, Beijing’s air pollution index was 88.”

Visitors gather at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square July 27, 2008. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Beijing was swathed in smog on Friday just two weeks ahead of the Olympics as its notorious pollution defied aggressive steps aimed at clearing the air for next month’s Games. However, Chinese officials brushed off concerns about the city’s stubborn smog, which has triggered a warning by IOC chief Jacques Rogge that some events could be postponed if air quality is poor.

“Sometimes it looks like it’s a foggy day, but the air quality is actually good,” Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing Olympic Organising Committee, told AFP.

“Our confidence is based on our 10 years of effort (to clean up the air). We are now implementing a continued plan to ensure clear air during the Olympics.”

Chinese officials routinely refer to the city’s smog as “fog”.

Friday’s smog came despite a broad last-ditch campaign kicked off last weekend to reduce air pollution by closing factories and banning more than a million cars. Beginning on Sunday, cars with odd and even number plates are allowed on streets only on alternate days. Beijing had earlier taken 300,000 heavily-polluting vehicles off the road.

The city experienced a few days of air quality this week that was better than usual, raising hopes that the measures were working.

But by Wednesday, the familiar grey cloak had re-emerged and on Friday the air pollution index in the city averaged 130, or “light pollution”.

By comparison, it stood at around 65, or “good” last Sunday, the first day of the driving restrictions.

Du Shaozhong, deputy head of the Beijing Environmental Protection Department, told reporters on Friday that major air pollutants emitted by cars, such as carbon dioxide, had dropped by 20 per cent from July 1 to Friday.

He said the city had seen 22 “blue sky” days during that period, two more than the same same stretch last year.

Pollution is a major threat to the August 8-24 Games and Rogge warned last year that poor air quality during the Games could result in the suspension of some events, particularly endurance races such as the marathon.

Haile Gebrselassie, the Ethiopian marathon record-holder, has already pulled out of the Beijing race over fears the pollution could affect his asthma.

A beautiful, sunny morning near Beijing.

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First published in Peace and Freedom '08.

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About the Author

John E. Carey has been a military analyst for 30 years.

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