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What’s In That Beijing Air?

Come to Beijing where you can see the air you breathe! But seriously, here's an exploration of the recent surge of pollution in Beijing, the resulting health hazards and measures being taken to counter the effects.

01·14·2013

What’s In That Beijing Air?

Come to Beijing where you can see the air you breathe! But seriously, here's an exploration of the recent surge of pollution in Beijing, the resulting health hazards and measures being taken to counter the effects.

01·14·2013

As I was getting ready to leave for work on Friday morning I got a video call from a friend in Scotland. I was excited to show him where I am living at the moment and showed him what it looked like outside of my apartment. “It looks quite foggy”, he remarked, and I was confused as the weather report hadn’t forecasted any fog. Stepping outside to get to work I noticed an unusual, kind of smoky smell, and a strange number of people wearing face masks. Once I arrived at work it quickly became apparent that the fog was actually pollution- coming from Scotland (with a total population of about 5 million) I had never experienced this level of pollution. Looking out of my flat on Saturday I was struggling to see the houses just across the road, and walking through the city I could not see further than maybe a few hundred feet. The air smells of coal and car fumes and after a day of attempting to go sightseeing my jacket smelled like I had been sitting next to a camp fire for hours. Official and unofficial monitoring stations suggested that on Saturday the pollution levels soared past the danger levels that had been outlined by the WHO (World Health Organization).

WHO guidelines state that the tiniest pollution particles in the air, the ones that are able to deeply penetrate your lungs and get into the smallest of airways (PM2.5), should be no more than 25 micrograms per cubic meter. PM2.5 represents particles such as soot from diesel engines, smelting and metal processing- these can cause respiratory problems as well as increased mortality from lung cancer and heart disease. Hospitals have reported a drastic increase of people being submitted with respiratory problems as a direct result of the bad air quality.

Air is considered unhealthy above 100 micrograms, and at above 300, sensitive groups such as children and the elderly, should stay indoors. Official readings suggest that the levels were at about 400 on Saturday; however unofficial readings undertaken by the U.S. embassy actually put the level at 886. Nobody can remember a time that the hazardous level had more than doubled. Foreign correspondents called last years 522 apocalyptic, and even expatriates who have lived in Beijing for years are getting worried about the chronic high levels of pollution that strain Beijing. In the Xizhimen area, west of the city, the pollution reached a level of 993 micrograms per cubic meter.

The deterioration of the air quality in Beijing and many other major cities in China has increased over the past few years, exacerbated by the growth in heavy industries around the city such as steel making, smelting, power generating and petrochemical sectors. Adding to this of course is the increased demand for heating in winter, a rapidly increasing car market and the country’s reliance on coal for power. Yu Jianhua, head of the atmospheric environment management office of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau also noted that current weather conditions are making it harder for the pollution to disperse with winter temperatures and humidity that have kept dropping in the city recently. The lack of wind added to this as it makes it harder for the pollutants to dissipate.

Yesterday Beijing started its emergency response plan to counter the severe pollution, which included ordering government vehicles off the road in order to cut usage by about 30 per cent. Additionally citizens have been advised to use public transport instead of driving, to further reduce the pollution. The plan also calls for construction sites to limit activities generating a lot of dust and asks industrial plants to reduce emissions. Residents are advised to stay indoors, while primary schools should reduce outdoor activities. Beijing Hyundai Motor Co. stopped production for a day and 28 construction sites stopped work as part of anti pollution measures.

Fourteen inspection teams were dispatched to 14 districts and counties to oversee the measures that were being put into place, but despite these pollution reducing efforts it is unlikely for the smog to clear until later this week. Experts stated that they thought the PM2.5 readings were the highest since the city started releasing detailed data last year. Public pressure forced the publication of detailed measurements, as the growing Chinese middle class became increasingly concerned with the amount of pollution in the air.

Air pollution in China is a major problem due to the rapid growth of industrialization and the disregard for environmental laws. Several other cities, including Tianjin on the coast of Beijing and Wuhan also reported severe pollution over the past few days. Additionally the fact that the Chinese economy is growing again after a slowdown throughout the last year may be adding to the problem, as shops were still busy, construction sites are showing an increase in overall activity and factories are hiring more and more due to increasing domestic and export demand. This was also evident on the streets in Beijing which were quite busy- possibly in connection to the huge sales going on at the moment- nobody really likes missing a bargain!

Thanks to posting this blog on Weibo, our editorial staff was invited to attend the popular talk show “Tiger Talks.”