Air quality in Beijing during the Olympics, according to the BBC, was actually quite clean. “Beijing met the strictest WHO standard for particulate matter in six out of the first 11 days of the Games.” Below, I examine just how good Beijing’s air quality was compared to air quality in previous games’ cities.
Pollution during the Beijing Olympics was rated on average 62 AQI for July 25 through August 24. Pollution was a 43 from the 18th through the 24th of August, according to the WSJ Beijing Air Quality Widget. (AQI is a composite number that includes measurements of ground-based ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter.) An AQI score of 43 would be considered green or safe in the United States, and yellow or fair in Canada.
To better understand the improvements Beijing made in its air quality, I present numbers from Runner’s Magazine’s September 2008 issue (page 96) which presented a comparative study of Olympic host cities’ pollution rates. The study measured average yearly concentrations of particulate matter (PM), sulfur dioxide (SD), and nitrogen dioxide (ND).
Note: Numbers below for “Beijing 2008” are pre-Olympics.
Montreal (1976)… 19
LA (1984)… 34
Barcelona (1992)… 35
Athens (2004)… 43
Beijing (2008)… 89
Beijing (DURING OLYMPICS)… 52-62
Safe Levels… 15-35
2004 EU Levels… 30
WHO Air Quality Target… 50
Montreal (1976)… 10
LA (1984)… 9
Barcelona (1992)… 11
Athens (2004)… 34
Beijing (2008)… 90
Beijing (DURING OLYMPICS)… 10-14
Safe Levels… 20 (WHO Guidelines. p.414)
(numbers in micrograms per cubic meter)
Beijing appeared to do a good job on reducing Particulate Matter pollution. Beijing lowered its average PM10 pollution by nearly 40 points on average. However, Beijing still suffered more floating particulates than were present in previous Olympic host cities. On average, Beijing was over the “safe” limit by nearly 30 points.
Beijing’s sulfur dioxide content, however, was notably lower than that of Athens in 2004 which put sulfur dioxide pollution within safe levels. Still, the amount was higher than SO2 content in other previous Olympic host cities.
Perhaps the best pollution prevention news is that nitrogen dioxide pollution was down by 1/4th, and was much lower than NO2 pollution in previous Games-holding cities.
China effectively confronted pollution in Beijing, at least in the short term. As September arrives and factories and construction begin turning on and cars return to the road, Beijing’s usual smog will return. But with luck, Beijingers now enjoying clear skies might be motivated to adopt and promote further environmental measures.
For now though, let us celebrate Beijing’s clear skies and Olympic environmental-stopgap success.
In English, here are district by district reports of air quality from the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau for August 23:
DISTRICT/ SULFUR/PARTICULATE MATTER/NITROGEN
|Dongsi Station in Dongcheng District||7||46||22|
|Guanyuan Station in Xicheng District||10||39||22|
|Tiantan Station in Chongwen District||9||48||25|
|Wan Shou Station in Xuanwu District||8||52||17|
|Olympic Sports Center Stadium in Chaoyang District||10||46||32|
|Agriculture Exhibition Center Station in Chaoyang District||16||44||30|
|Wanliu Station in Haidian District||11||46||27|
|North Developping Area Station in Haidian District||9||51||8|
|Botanical Garden Station in Haidian District||8||41||16|
|Fengtai Town Station in Fengtai District||9||56||39|
|Yungang Station in Fengtai District||9||51||8|
|Gu Cheng Station in Shi Jingshan District||15||56||23|
|Station in Yizhuang Developping Area||10||55||19|
|Longquan Town Station in Men Tougou District||5||50||13|
|Liangxiang Town Station in Fangshan District||8||53||31|
|Tongzhou Town Station in Tongzhou District||5||54||13|
|Renhe Town station in Shunyi District||5||39||7|
|Dingling Station in Changping District||6||31||3|
|Changping Town Station in Changping District||7||38||9|
|Yellow village Station in Daxing District||17||58||18|
|Yufa Station in Daxing District||5||61||14|
|Pinggu Town Station in Pinggu District||5||48||5|
|Huairou Town Station in Huairou District||5||29||5|
|Miyun Town Station in Miyun County||7||28||4|
|Miyun Reservoir Station||6||19||12|
|Yanqing Town Station in Yanqing District||11||37||13|
|Ba Daling Station in Yanqing County||7||24||19|
Particulate Matter Chart for Beijing: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7498198.stm
Every winter, Beijing skies darken with pollution’s gray fog. Exercising becomes dangerous to the health since too much bad air is drawn in and and not enough good. Soot merges with Beijing’s snowfalls, solidifying the snow and making these dense packed black and white masses last.
Beijing’s foul air contrasts greatly to air quality elsewhere. Good air, which rates a 50 on the AQI (air quality index) means air absent of “ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide,” according to airnow.gov. When air rates over 150, it is considered unhealthy and a red pollution day is declared. Several American cities experience red, or purple (201-300 AQI values) pollution days a few times per year. Beijing’s index, by contrast, suffers over 110 days each year in excess of AQI 100. Several days in December 2007, air quality hit 500- meriting a hazardous maroon rating (US air quality scale).
In Winter 2006 and 2007, the pollution index also hit 500. On those days, we could not even see buildings less than a block away. Bleakness oozed. Chinese wore white face masks.
“Beijing lung”, our endearing term for hacking up black spittle, became a common sight and ailment among not just foreigners, but also among locals. People felt dizzy, lethargic, and disoriented. Food took on a slightly tinny tinge, and eyes watered.
Is Beijing’s polluted clime livable- yes. As bad as my description sounds, thousands of Beijingers more or less live, and work- hanging 30 stories off construction beams, or carting bales of cardboard and crushed plastic on precariously balanced bikes. According to a New York Times article by Aaron Kuo-Deemer, hospital visits and deaths do rise significantly during high pollution days. But it is amazing how much pollution the human body can withstand. Even though just walking on a 500 level pollution day feels like smoking several cigarettes, one recalls some heavy smokers live long lives. In fact, Jeanne Calment, the world’s oldest lady smoked until she was nearly 117. Other smokers at least live into their sixties.
But living a relatively healthy life among increasing pollution is not sustainable. Pollution cuts into productivity as asthma cases increase and lung diseases strike, creating pressure on China’s health care system. Last year cancer accounted for nearly 20 percent of Chinese deaths, according to China Daily. Estimates state “70 percent of China’s 2 million annual deaths attributable to the disease were pollution-related,” according to China’s State Environmental Protection Administration; also “a World Bank report said about 750,000 Chinese die earlier due to air pollution every year.”
The situation, despite government claims to the contrary, may be worsening. Although Beijing can celebrate an alleged 244 blue sky days where the pollution index remained below 100, part of the reason for the achievement attributes not to greater environmental sustainability, but to movement of monitoring stations to new locations- farther away from highway intersections.
Cleaning up sulfur-spewing factories and particulate-emitting coal plants, Beijing has progressed in reducing airborne particulate matter. However, with over a thousand cars added daily to Beijing’s streets, automotive pollutants are merely replacing industrial pollutants. Although Beijing has made great strides in improving car and bus emission standards and although it has increased mass transportation, opening two subway lines, and a light rail in 2007 and 2008, Beijing’s rapid growth and unfortunate location negate much of its environmental gains. Smog originating from northern provinces’ factories blow into Beijing’s dry mountain-surrounded plateau and is trapped. The dust only dissipates with a rain or strong wind. Otherwise, bleakness looms.
Despite recent environmental advances- the preponderance of cars, influx of people and high energy demands will contribute to increased pollution. Beijing will grow and the government will struggle to limit pollution. People will endure, but as the city grows, so too will the dark clouds looming above.
(This article was originally written in March 2008 )