Air pollution shrouds Chinese cities, soaring to record highs

Image credit: Jonathan Kos-Read [http://www.flickr.com/photos/jonathankosread/6230917584/] (CC)

Today, Beijing’s municipal authorities invited the population to stay at home after the Chinese air pollution monitoring stations noted record levels of pollution in the capital.

According to the Chinese government’s mouthpiece, Xinhua News, “readings for PM2.5, or airborne particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less -- small enough to deeply penetrate the lungs -- were as high as 456 on Saturday.” However, an article on the BBC points out that the U.S. Embassy’s monitoring station in Beijing recorded polution levels closer to 800 micrograms per cubic meter.

Whereas there is no threshold for particulate matter below which no damage to health is observed, air is considered unhealthy by the World Health Organiation at 100 micrograms per cubic meter.

The U.S. Embassy’s data on Chinese air quality are almost always higher than those reported by Chinese officials. In fact, the Italian daily, La Repubblica, writes that for years, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing has contested the unreliability of official pollution levels. In the past, the U.S. Embassy has been warned by Chinese officials to not release its air quality data.

The heavy pollution that has shrouded the Chinese capital is so dense that it is causing traffic and severe delays on roads due to scarse visibility. According to Xinhua, more than 20 highways have been closed, and 63 flights have been cancelled to and from the coastal city of Qingdao.

Xinhua reports that China has already taken various measures to fight air pollution.
Effective this year, 74 major Chinese cities are required to report air pollution levels using stricter standards, and a 350 billion Yuan ($56 billion) plan to lower pollution levels by 5% in 117 cities has also been enforced.

Will such a plan help?

A study conducted during and after the 2008 Beijing Olympics answers in the affirmative. The $17 billion that were spent by the Chinese government to prepare Beijing for the games from July 20 to September 17, which included curtailing traffic, reducing emissions by implementing strict restrictions on automobile and truck use, closing factories, halting construction projects, spraying roads with water to reduce dust, and seeding clouds to induce rain fall resulted in a temporary boost in people's heart health in China’s polluted cities.

The problem does not only affect mainland China. As News24 points out, despite its name meaning “the fragrant harbour”, Hong Kong’s pollution levels are also staggeringly high due to power plant emissions and ship/vehicle fuel, killing more than 3000 people a year. In fact, the pollution levels in Hong Kong exceed the World Health Organization standards by 205%, according to an October 2012 Audit Commission report. Levels of NO2 in Hong Kong were 279%, 47% and 36% higher than  those in Sydney, London and New York respectively, and those of PM10 in Hong  Kong were 220%, 100% and 153% higher than those in the same three cities.

The Hong Kong government website has written on its front page that new Air Quality Objectives were adopted on 17 January, 2012, to better protect public health, and that they will be in effect by 2014.

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