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Breathless Beijing Smog

November 21, 2011

More front line investigative journalism from Caixin Weekly:

Caixin Weekly: China Economics & Finance (Caixin Media)
Wednesday, November 16, 2011,

 Is it a mere question of differing air quality standards? Officials are
finally saying they need to come clean on the city´s air pollution
 By staff reporters Xu Chao and Yu Dawei | 916 words
While Beijing is notoriously known for murky domains, for several days
on-end the entire city became the physical embodiment of a uniformly dark
and clouded place. On October 31, renowned fairytale author Zheng Yuanjie
wrote on his microblog that the city was like a giant poisonous gas tank.
Meanwhile, the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB) classified
the air as slightly polluted. Through several days of haze, visibility in
Beijing was only 300 to 800 meters. Several hundred flights at Beijing
Capital Airport were canceled or delayed. According to the U.S. Embassy,
Beijing has had only 12 days of "fair" or "good air," while the remaining
19 days were "unhealthy for sensitive groups," "unhealthy," "very
unhealthy," or even "hazardous." Zheng said that the first step toward
controlling air pollution is for the EPB to tell the truth. Du Shaozhong,
deputy director and spokesman of EPB, said in an interview that the smog
was a result of adverse weather conditions which trapped pollution in the
city. The bureau added that over the past two or three years, similar
conditions had appeared and the conditions were typical to the climate of
northern China. Poor weather conditions were the main cause of the dense
air pollution, Beijing Institute of Meteorology Senior Engineer Lu Chen
said to Caixin. Before cold air arrives in Beijing, the atmosphere is in a
relatively steady state, making it easier for haze to form. "In 1998 it
once went on for 20 days straight," said Lu. But weather conditions are an
external factor. The source of the haze comes from vehicle emissions, said
Lu. He added that the gap between Chinese and American air quality
readings lies in the fact that China's current national air quality
standards do not measure particulates under PM2.5. PM2.5 refers to
atmospheric particulate matter less than or equal to 2.5 microns in
diameter, which is easily absorbed into the lungs. These particles have a
significant impact on air quality and visibility, and can be very harmful
to the respiratory system. The main source of PM2.5 is residue given off
during the combustion processes in daily power generation, industrial
production and vehicle emissions. Many of the particles contain heavy
metals and other toxic substances. What the Beijing EPB currently reports
daily and weekly is PM10 -- particulate matter less than or equal to 10
microns in diameter. Some experts in Beijing said the U.S. embassy's
readings are different because the monitory scope is smaller and announced
hourly. Beijing EPB data is an average of data collected over a 24-hour
period from air quality monitoring stations placed throughout the city. In
the latter, peaks are often smoothed out. Professor Zhu Tong of the Peking
University College of Environmental Science and Engineering said that
using the U.S. embassy data to evaluate Beijing's air quality was not
scientific. He said that if the embassy's data were compared with data
from one official monitoring station from the same area as the embassy,
the monitoring results would be relatively close. In late October,
Beijing's primary pollutants were almost all PM10, and the Air Quality
Index (AQI) was between 100 and 200, corresponding to 150 to 240
micrograms of PM10 per square meter. On October 31, for example, PM2.5
monitored by the U.S. Embassy had an average concentration of 257, while
the official EPB number was 132. Converting the PM10 concentration to
PM2.5 should come to 214, which is relatively close to the number from the
U.S. embassy. The U.S. embassy listed the air quality that day as
hazardous, but according to China's current air quality standards, an AQI
of between 100 and 150 is considered light pollution; 150 to 200 is mild
pollution; and 200 and above is moderate pollution. The corresponding PM10
concentration should be 350 and above. In September 2010, NASA released a
map of average global air pollution between 2001 and 2006. The highest
concentrations of PM2.5 occurred in northern Africa and northern, eastern
and central China. In China, all of these areas were above 50 and
approaching 80. At the National Department of Environmental Protection
Director's meeting in Shijiazhuang in October 2011, Zhao Hualin, head of
the Ministry of Environmental Protection's Department of Pollution and
Emissions Control said, "To combat haze pollution, we will revise and
improve the 'Ambient Air Quality Standards' as soon as possible to include
PM2.5 in the calculation." China Environmental Monitoring Station Chief
Engineer Wei Fusheng told Caixin that the MEP was considering formally
including PM2.5 in air quality standards in developed eastern regions and
was currently seeking city's opinions. The more stringent PM2.5 standard
will place tremendous pressure on cities. But Du with Beijing EPB said,
"Currently, PM10 prevention is the principal contradiction. Bringing small
particles under control only makes sense after removing large particles.
It's like sweeping in front of the front door. Only after removing the
large stones can you sweep away the dust." Professor Shao Min of Peking
University College of Environmental Science and Engineering told Caixin
that Beijing's pollution has accumulated over many years and it is
unlikely that haze can be brought under control in five or 10 years. Shao
warned that there is now a high degree of pollution, with 70 to 80
micrograms of pollutants per meter and sometimes more than 100. Reducing
this to around 40 will take a long time. Moreover, between 80 and 40, the
improvement in visibility is not great. "We still won't see blue skies,"
he said. He suggested that ordinary people reduce outdoor activities on
polluted days. More important, city residents should drive less and use
more public transport in order to contribute to improving the environment.

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