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Off the Charts: Air Pollution in China Breaks the Scale

In the last week, the air pollution in Beijing has been so severe that it's gone far off the official scale.

In the last several days, the air pollution in Beijing has gone literally off the charts: the levels are so bad that they go well beyond the worst possible rating on the official air quality index. Every day, at roughly the same time, our site China Air Daily documents China’s air pollution in five Chinese cities. I thought the new year had started out well. Beijing, for one, had quite a few clear days with blue skies. Then the new year’s record of clean air was swept away. The air got so bad that friends have told me the filthy air actually has been waking them up in the middle of the night.

For someone who has been following Beijing air pollution for years, this latest period has been surprisingly bad. I’ve seen too many completely smoggy days. I’ve also seen the worst week since Christmas 2007, when Beijing registered a 500 (the maximum on the government’s data scale). This past week the air quality readings have been much worse and stayed dangerously high for much longer than late 2007.
I’ve read much about how bad the air can get in Beijing and other Chinese cities. But what sticks in my mind is a great experiment conducted by Greenpeace East Asia on eight volunteers who also wanted to find out how much dust their lungs would collect over 20 hours. What Greenpeace did was genius: tagging each volunteer with an air filter that connects with a breathing simulator through a pipe for a day. The team photographed the air filters before and after the experiments. The result is a striking visual warning about the most persistent public health hazard in many Chinese cities.


Mr. Hu, a volunteer who works as a taxi driver, ended up being the worst-case victim. His filter turned from a clean white sheet to a fluffy layer of mud. I looked at the average PM2.5 record that day, and it was a low 40 micrograms per cubic meter, just a bit higher than the World Health Organization’s recommended healthy level of 25. But driving makes Mr. Hu the most vulnerable target of all the pollution floating in open air, amplifying his exposure to PM2.5 to as much as 122 micrograms per cubic meter. If you’re already shivering as you look at the before-and-after images of his filter, then imagine the effects when the PM2.5 levels skyrocket toward 1,000. That’s what Beijing went through for many hours before falling back to a “normal” bad score, in the mid-hundreds, which is already considered hazardous by U.S. EPA standards.

As I write, I am so glad for all my Beijing friends that air quality is finally coming down. It’s gone from “very unhealthy” to “moderate” or “unhealthy for sensitive groups” for a couple of hours. Yet down southwest, another major metropolitan area remains “very unhealthy” for at least a full week. Chengdu, the new city we just added to our site starting this year, has turned out to be quite a competitor to Beijing when it comes to air pollution.
I thought Christmas 2007 was the worst I could have seen for air pollution in Beijing. The past week has proven me wrong. I started documenting Beijing’s air pollution in 2007, hoping that the daily pictures we archive will make the next generation proud when China cleans up the foul air in a matter of years. Now it seems that clean air won’t come to Beijing and many cities in China for the foreseeable future.
Many things need to happen to clean the air. The number of cars needs to be restricted, and fuel standards need to be significantly improved. Industry in northern China needs to seriously tackle pollution emissions, for example, installing scrubbers and actually keeping them in operation. A less coal-reliant growth model needs to be considered and the government needs to act soon to actually transition to better alternatives.
The Chinese government has a target date of sorts for cleaner air: 2035. I hope it will be sooner. For now, we’ll keep closely documenting the air in China, and helping raise awareness around the rest of the world.

Images courtesy of Bill Bishop and Kuang Yin\n

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