Off the Charts: Air Pollution in China Breaks the Scale Off the Charts: Air Pollution in China Breaks the Scale

Off the Charts: Air Pollution in China Breaks the Scale

January 20, 2013

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
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Off the Charts: Air Pollution in China Breaks the Scale