Sunday, October 14, 2012


China's environmental protection ministry published a report in November 2010 which showed that about a third of 113 cities surveyed failed to meet national air standards last year. According to the World Bank 16 of the world’s 20 cities with the worst air are in China. According to Chinese government sources, about a fifth of urban Chinese breath heavily polluted air. Many places smell like high-sulfur coal and leaded gasoline. Only a third of the 340 Chinese cities that are monitored meet China’s own pollution standards.

China’s smog-filled cities are ringed with heavy industry, metal smelters, and coal-fired power plants, all critical to keeping the fast-growing economy going even as they spew tons of carbon, metals, gases, and soot into the air. The air pollution and smog in Beijing and Shanghai are sometimes so bad that the airports are shut down because of poor visibility. The air quality of Beijing is 16 times worse than New York City. Sometimes you can't even see building a few blocks away and blue sky is a rare sight. In Shanghai sometimes you can't see the street from the 5th floor window. Fresh air tours to the countryside are very popular.

Only 1 percent of the China’s 560 million city dwellers breath air considered safe by European Union standards according to a World Bank study. Air pollution is particularly bad in the rust belt areas of northeastern China. A study done by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that the amount of airborne suspended particulates in northern China are almost 20 times what WHO considers a safe level.

Space shuttle astronaut Jay Apt wrote in National Geographic, "many of the great coastal cites of China hide from our cameras under a...blanket of smoke from soft-coal fires." The northeast industrial town of Benxi is so polluted that it once disappeared from satellite photos. Its residents have the highest rate of lung disease in China.

Coal is the number once source of air pollution in China. China gets 80 percent of electricity and 70 percent its total energy from coal, much of it polluting high-sulphur coal. Around six million tons of coal is burned everyday to power factories, heat homes and cook meals. Expanding car ownership, heavy traffic and low-grade gasoline have made cars a leading contributor to the air pollution problem in Chinese cities.

A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center before the 2008 Olympics found that 74 percent of the Chinese interviewed said they were concerned about air pollution.

Kinds of Air Pollution in China

Air pollutants include sulfates, ozone, black carbon, flu-laced desert dust and mercury. Black carbon, the soot produced by cars, stoves, factories, and crop burning and a major component of Chinese haze. The small diameter of the carbon particles means they can penetrate deep inside the lungs, providing absorption sites for secondary toxins that would otherwise be cleared. This compounds the danger, making black carbon an especially potent risk factor for lung disease and premature death.

Air pollution includes particles of soot, organic hazardous material, heavy metals, acid aerosols and dust. The smaller particles are more dangerous because they are more easily inhaled. Judged as the most dangerous for health, suspended particulates are caused mainly by coal and car exhaust. In the cities it is also caused by construction. In the spring it is caused by dust from the sand and dust storms in the Gobi.

Particulate matter, which includes dust, soot aerosol particles less than 10 microns in size is a major source of air pollution. Particulate levels are measured in micrograms be cubic meter of air. In United States levels about 50 micrograms are considered unsafe. In Europe the levels are around 40 micrograms. In Beijing that average level is 141.

China is the world’s leading source of sulfur dioxide. Levels of the pollutant in the air are comparable to Japan in the 1970s when air pollution was a major problem there. Emissions of sulfur dioxide from coal and fuel oil can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as acid rain. Sulfur dioxide emissions alone are though to cause damage equal to 12 percent of China’s GNP.

China’s emissions of nitrogen oxide—the main cause of urban smog—have increased 3.8 percent a year for 25 years. Unless things are dramatically changed nitrogen oxide emissions in China will double by 2020. Nitrogen oxide is released by power plants, heavy industry and cars.

Nitrogen dioxide is not a serious problem. Levels of the pollutant in China are comparable to those in Japan. Even so levels in Beijing rose 50 percent between 1996 and 2006.

There are also problems with ozone and paticulates measuring more than 2.5 microns. Ozone forms when nitrogen oxides combine with hydrocarbons emitted by vehicles and refineries. It affects photosynthesis. High ozone levels recorded in the lower Yangtze basin are thought to be linked o crops yields that are 25 percent lower than those in unpolluted areas.

PM 2.5 Fine Particulate Pollution and China
Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times: The most pernicious measure of urban air pollution — particulates 2.5 microns in diameter or less, or PM 2.5— are among the most hazardous because they easily penetrate lungs and enter the bloodstream. Caused by dust or emissions from vehicles, coal combustion, factories and construction sites, the particles increases the risk of cardiovascular ailments, respiratory disease and lung cancer if people are chronically exposed to them. Car and truck exhaust is a major source of fine particulate pollution, a particular problem in Beijing, where the number of registered cars has skyrocketed from to 5 million in 2011 from 3.5 million in 2008.

The Chinese government has monitored exposure levels in 20 cities and 14 other sites, reportedly for as long as five years, but has kept the data secret. In the summer of 2010 it sought to silence the American Embassy in Beijing as well, arguing that American officials had insulted the Chinese government by posting readings from the PM 2.5 monitor could lead to “social consequences” in China and asked the embassy to restrict access to it. The embassy refused, and Chinese citizens now translate and disseminate the readings widely.

While China has made gains on some other airborne toxins, the PM 2.5 data is far from reassuring in a country that annually has hundreds of thousands of premature deaths related to air pollution. In an unreleased December report relying on government data, the World Bank said average annual PM 2.5 concentrations in northern Chinese cities exceeded American limits by five to six times as much, and two to four times as much in southern Chinese cities. Nine of 13 major cities failed more than half the time to meet even the initial annual mean target for developing countries set by the World Health Organization. Environmental advocates here expect China to adopt that target as its PM 2.5 standard.

Wang Yuesi, the chief air-pollution scientist at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, estimated this month that Beijing needed at least 20 years to reach that goal. The embassy’s monitor showed that fine particulate concentrations over the past two years averaged nearly three times that level , and 10 times the World Health Organization’s guideline, said Steven Q. Andrews, an environmental consultant based in Beijing.

In fact, Mr. Wang told Outlook Weekly , a magazine owned by China’s official news agency, Xinhua, that Beijing’s PM 2.5 concentrations have been increasing by 3 to 4 percent annually since 1998. He said the finer particulates absorbed more light, explaining why Beijing so often is enveloped in a haze thick enough to obscure even nearby buildings. Air pollution in the city and in nearby Tianjin is so severe that “something must be done to control it,” he wrote on his blog .

Zhong Nanshan, a respiratory expert at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told China Daily month that without intervention, PM 2.5 particulates would replace smoking as China’s top cause of lung cancer. Beijing health experts told the newspaper that while smoking rates were flat, the city’s lung-cancer rate had risen 60 percent in the past decade, probably as a result of air pollution.

PM 2.5 particles are about 1/30th the width of a human hair, and so fine that they can lodge deeply in human lungs. "The smaller the particle, the more hazardous it is for public health," Shi Yuankai, an expert with the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences Cancer Hospital, told the China Daily. Protective measures like wearing face masks barely help because the particles are too small," he said.

Coal, Acid Rain and Air Pollution in China
Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are the main pollutants that cause acid rain. The former is cause when sulphur emitted from coal-fired power stations and commercial installations mixes with oxygen. The latter is produced when nitrogen emitted from vehicles and power stations and other sources combines with oxygen. Acid rain has at least one positive point. It reduces the amount of methane.

See Coal, Energy, Educationm Health...

Vaclav Smil, a Canadian expert on the Chinese environment from the University of Manitoba, told the New York Times, the Chinese “have this coal; they have to use it....Much of the coal is now coming from these very small coal mines, but there is no sorting, no cleaning or washing and this kind of coal generates a tremendous amount of pollution."

China is the world’s top producer of airborne sulfur dioxide and particulate matter from coal combustion. Chinese factories and power plants spewed out 25.5 million tons of sulphur dioxide, the chemical that causes acid ran, in 2005, up 27 percent from 2000. By contrast the United States produced about 11 million tons. Levels of sulphur dioxide emissions in China are double what are regarded safe. Coal-burring power stations and coking plants are the main sulfur dioxide producers.

One survey found that a third of mainland China is regularly soaked in acid rain and half of the cities and counties surveyed receive at least some acid rain. In some places every rainy day is an acid rain day and limestone buildings are dissolving in the acid air. The Guangdong-Guangxi-Guizhou-Sichuan basin south of the Yangtze is the largest single area in the world affected by acid rain pollution. A study in the early 2000s found that one third of crops in the Chongqing area had been damaged by acid rain. China sends some its acid rain abroad. See Below

Coal plant in Linfen

Coal and the Environment
The production of coal-fired plants has slowed to some degree. They are no longer being produced at the rate of one a week and now add 80 gigawatts of power a year, down from 100 gigawatts a few years earlier.

It is estimated that the use of cheap coal cost China $248 billion, the equivalent of 7.1 percent of GDP, in 2007 through environmental damage, strains on the health care system and manipulation of commodity prices. The figure was arrived at by the Energy Foundation and the WWF by taking into consideration things like lost income from those sickened by coal pollution.

Coal has been tied to a number of health problems. In towns like Gaojiagao in Shanxi it has been linked with a high number of birth defects such neural tube defects, additional fingers and toes, cleft pallets and congenital heart disease and mental retardation.

Coal, Underground Coal Fires and Tire Fires in China
Many places still burn large amounts of coal for heating. Coal produces thick, smoggy smoke. High sulphur coal is particularly nasty. It produces a rotten egg smell .

Underground coal fires are consuming 20 to 30 million tons of coal a year, pumping tons of ash, carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide and sulfur compounds into the atmosphere. Some of the fires have been burning for centuries. By one count there are 56 underground coals fire currently burning in China. Coal fires produce huge amounts of harmful carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. The fires produce as much carbon monoxide each year as all the cars in the United States.

The underground coal fires are revealed by fumes and smoke that pour from cracks in the earth. The Wude coal field in Inner Mongolia, one of China’s largest coal fields, is the home of China’s largest coal fire and some argue one of the world’s worst environmental disasters. Sixteen of China’s coal fires burn here, spewing out acrid clouds of sulfur dioxide.

The fires at the Wude field are at a depth of between 110 to 220 feet. They advance about 100 feet a year. An official in charge of putting the fires at Wude told Smithsonian magazine: “An underground coal fire is like a dragon. We can sense the dragon’s tail, that is, the area already burned. But satellite images show that the hottest, densest parts are far below the surface, or the dragon’s head. We can predict the path, and prepare to chop off its head.”

Workers try to extinguish the fires by starving them of oxygen by burying them under a 3-foot-layer of dirt. Pouring water on them produces dangerous methane gas, so workers pour a water-clay slurry into cracks instead of water if a dousing strategy is employed. Even when the fires are extinguished the ground can take years to cool down.

Only 10 percent of China’s coal underground fires are being fought. They pose little immediate threat other than polluting the air in fairly remote places and cutting off access to some coal supplies. There have been some successes. In 2003, a centuries-old fire was extinguished near Urumqi after a four year battle.

In 2009, a number of coal fires, one of which had been burning for 60 years, were put out in Xinjiang. The fires, which has been caused illegal mining and spontaneous combustion, had spread to more than 900,000 square meters and consumed 10 million tons of coal a year. The fires were put out through a coordinated plan of drilling, water injection and using earth to cut off oxygen.

In Wuhan in Hubei Province old tires and asphalt are used as fuel to fire pottery kilns, creating some nasty pollution in the process.

Cement Plants and Pollution in China
Cement plants are among the biggest air pollution producers in China. They produce lots of dust in various sizes. They also need a lot of energy—heat of more than 2,600 degrees F from 400 pounds of coal for each ton of cement—to convert the limestone and other materials into the intermediate form of cement called “clinker.” Production generates huge amounts of heat that is released into the air.

To reduce coal transportation costs cement plants are often built in places that have a supply of coal nearby. Mining, coal processing and cement making produce high levels of pollution. Areas with cement plants can often be determined from many kilometers away by the grayish color of the air and the layers of dust on trees and the road.

Advanced cement plants recycle heat normally released into the air and use it to run turbines that generate electric power. The power then can be used to run the plants. These plants require 60 percent less energy, enough to cover the millions of dollars needed to build the advance plant, which take about in four years to construct. The technology for these system is supplied by the Chinese firm Dalian East Energy Development, which exports the technoloy to countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Pakistan and plans to use similar technology on steel plants in the future.

Effects of Air Pollution in China
On living with Beijing's air pollution, Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “After four years in Beijing, I’ve learned how to gauge the pollution before I open the curtains; by dawn on the smoggiest days, the lungs ache. The city government does not dwell on the details; its daily air-quality measurement does not even tally the tiniest particles of pollution, which are the most damaging to the respiratory system. Last year, the U.S. Embassy installed an air monitor on the roof of one of its buildings, and every hour it posts the results to a Twitter feed, with a score ranging from 1, which is the cleanest air, to 500, the dirtiest. American cities consider anything above 100 to be unhealthy. The rare times in which an American city has scored above 300 have been in the midst of forest fires. In these cases, the government puts out public-health notices warning that the air is “hazardous” and that “everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors.” As I type this in Beijing, the Embassy’s air monitor says that today’s score is 500. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, December 21, 2009]

The engines of Chinese airlines have to be overhauled and replaced more frequently than elsewhere because operating in Chinese air corrodes the turbine blades faster.

In Tangshan, a large industrial, coastal city 125 miles east of Beijing, people can tell which way the wind is blowing by what color the smog is. Grayish color smog comes from iron deposits blown from steel mills to the south; whitish smog comes from chemical factories to the east; and black dust comes from the coal and coking plant to the west. Tangshan itself is home to many dirty factories and plants such as Beijing Coking-Chemical Plant and Capital Iron and Steel, both of which were relocated to Tangshan from Beijing to reduce pollution there.

The Beijing Coking-Chemical Plant was one of the Beijing worst polluters until it was relocated in 2006. At it peak it employed 10,000 workers and powered most of the city’s stoves and heating system. Chinese leaders were proud of the fact that smoke for the factory’s six chimneys never stopped in its 47-year history. After it was moved to Tangshan people that used to live near it in Beijing said it was the first time they could hang laundry outside without worrying about their clothes getting covered with black coal dust

Health Problems and Air Pollution in China

China has the world highest number of deaths attributed to air pollution. The World Health Organization estimated in 2007 that 656,000 Chinese died prematurely each year from ailments caused by indoor and outdoor air pollution (that's like losing everybody in Wyoming every year). The World Bank placed deaths related to outdoor pollution at 350,000 to 400,000, but excised those figures from a 2007 report under government pressure.

According to Chinese government statistics 300,000 die each year from ambient air pollution, mostly from heart disease and lung cancer. An additional 110,000 die from illnesses related to indoor pollution from poorly ventilated wood and coal stoves and toxic fumes from shoddy construction material. The air pollution death figure is expect to rise to 380,000 in 2010 and 550,000 in 2020. The Chinese government has calculated that if the air quality in 210 medium and large cities were to be improved from “polluted” to “good” levels 178,000 lives could be saved.

International schools here are doming their athletic fields because pollution so often requires that students stay indoors. Washington Post writer John Pomfret was based in Beijing for many years. When his family moved to Los Angeles afterwards his son’s asthma attacks and chronic chest infections stopped. When asked why he moved to Los Angeles he jokingly said “for the air.”

It has been reasoned that all forms of air pollution are 10 times more damaging to health than all forms of water pollution. According to the World Bank and WHO between 300,000 and 350,000 people die from outdoor air pollution and about 300,000 die from inside air pollution. Some think the true figure is much higher. Some estimate that indoor air pollution kills more than 700,000 people a year. The fine particles produced by coal-fired stoves exacerbates respiratory problems and is especially damaging to children’s lungs functions.

Air pollution causes premature births, low-birth weight babies, and depresses lungs functioning in otherwise healthy people. It has also been blamed for China's rising rates of cancer. Lung cancer is now the leading cause of death in China. In the last five years the number of deaths from the disease has risen 18.5 percent to 34 per 100,000 people. Air pollution is also linked with a variety of respiratory aliments. Around some factories the asthma rate is 5 percent. It is estimated that 26 percent of all deaths in China are caused by respiratory illnesses (compared with 2 or 3 percent in the U.S.). Many people in Beijing and Shanghai get hacking coughs. In rural areas, respiratory disease is the number one killer. It is impossible to say how many are caused by air pollution though and how many are caused by smoking or some other cause.

In December 2011 Kyodo reported: Air pollution is likely a main culprit for the almost 60 percent growth in lung cancer rates in Beijing during the past decade, China's state media reported Tuesday. "Increasing air pollution might be largely blamed" for the big rise, even though the smoking rate during the period has not seen an apparent increase, Zhi Xiuyi, the head of Capital Medical University's lung cancer center, told the China Daily. The China Daily cited figures released by the Beijing Institute for Cancer Research as showing that between 2000 and 2009, instances of lung cancer in the capital rose 56 percent. Health experts warn the absorption of small particles in people's lungs poses a long-lasting health danger.[Source: Kyodo, December 6, 2011]

Air pollution is believed to have significantly reduced crop production. Studies based on satellite imagery and ground-based observation suggest that particles of suspended pollutants scatter sun light over two thirds of eastern China resulting in harvests of rice and winter wheat that may be 5 to 30 percent less than if there was no pollution.

Coal-Related Air Pollution Linked to Lung Cancer
Nonsmoking women in an area of China’s Yunnan province die of lung cancer at a rate 20 times that of their counterparts in other regions of the country — and higher than anywhere else in the world. In a January 2010 article in the journal Environmental Science & Technology group of scientists said they had come up with a possible explanation why: the burning of coal formed during volcanic eruptions hundreds of millions of years ago. [Source: Sindya N. Bhanoo, New York Times, January 11, 2010]

Coal in Yunnan’s Xuanwei County, where the problem exists, contains high concentrations of silica, a suspected carcinogen. There is more silica in this coal than in 99.9 percent of all the samples we analyzed, said an author of the study, Robert B. Finkelman, a professor of geology at the University of Texas at Dallas. [Ibid]

Like others in rural China, the families of Xuanwei County use coal for heat and for cooking. As the coal burns, particles of silica are released with the vapor and inhaled. Women, who do the cooking, face the greatest exposure. [Ibid]

Dr. Finkelman and his colleagues found that quartz, of which silica is the primary component, made up 13.5 percent of the coal samples taken from Xuanwei County. In normal coal samples, quartz and other minerals are found only in trace amounts. The grains of quartz were so small they were only visible through an electron microscope, Dr. Finkelman said. Strikingly, the coal found in neighboring villages did not contain quartz at the same high levels or with such fine grain. [Ibid]

When the volcanic eruptions occurred 250 million years ago, they set off a mass extinction and released acid gases, leading to a variety of changes in the earth’s environment, including acid rain. Dr. Finkelman speculated that the rain might have dissolved surface rocks composed of silica, which then might have worked its way into developing formations of coal. [Ibid]

The high cancer rates in Xuanwei have attracted the attention of scientists for decades. Dr. Qing Lan, an epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute in Rockville, Md., is completing two studies involving hundreds of women and families there. While her team is confident that coal burning is causing the high rates of cancer, they are not certain it is due to silica. [Ibid]

Unreliability of Chinese Pollution Data
Whether government statistics are reliable is another matter, Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times. While some argue that the release of ever more detailed data makes fudging ever harder, Mr. Andrews, the environmental researcher, contends that the government systematically manipulated data and standards to create more “blue sky” days. Although attention focuses on Beijing, at least 16 other cities are more polluted, the World Bank says. Their efforts to clean up the air are partly offset by rising populations, an avalanche of vehicles and never-ending construction.

Some experts contend that the government shies away from epidemiological studies on pollution’s health impact. “They are really unwilling to match it to the health data because that would be much more alarming,” said one specialist who spoke anonymously for fear of angering Chinese officials. “They want to get the counts down first.”

Kyodo reported: Many Beijing residents worry about discrepancies between China's official air quality readings and air testing conducted at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which conducts its own measurements. While China's national environmental monitoring center reported that Beijing's air was slightly polluted Monday, the U.S. Embassy, which measures smaller particulates, or those less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, rated it as "hazardous.' [Source: Kyodo, December 6, 2011]

China's pollution monitors have been struggling to maintain credibility since a clear run of blue-sky days during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games when factories were forced to temporarily close and car use was severely restricted. "The government has created a story that air pollution has improved, but actually it has not," Steven Andrews, a Beijing-based environmental consultant, told Kyodo News. "China actually has stringent environmental regulations. But if they are not being followed in the capital, you can just imagine how bad it must be in other areas," he said.

The Beijing government has even criticized health experts for taking health precautions to deal with the air pollution. When an American doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital recommended this month on his blog that people wear face masks, the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times newspaper ran an article rebuking him. The newspaper quoted an anonymous doctor at Peking University People's Hospital as saying, "The suggestion to wear air masks will make trouble out of nothing, as we've had polluted air for a long time, and we shouldn't be living with an American standard." [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 29, 2011]

Beijing and Chinese Cities with Bad Air Pollution
Three Chinese cities—Linfen, Lanzhou and Urumqi—made the top 10 list of cities in the world with the worst air pollution by the Blacksmith Institute Other cities with the bad air pollution include Golmud, Shijiazhuang, Shizuishan, Datong, Taiyuan, Jilin, Hechi and Zhuzhou. Most of these cities are in the north, where blowing dust combines with industrial pollutants.

Chinese cities usually rank high in international studies of pollution. Levels of suspended particles: (micrograms per cubic meter, 1995): Beijing (370); Shanghai (246); Chongqing (322); Taiyuan (568); Bangkok (200); Los Angeles (76); New York (59); Tokyo (55). Levels of sulfur dioxide (micrograms per cubic meter, 1995): Beijing (94); Shanghai (53); Chongqing (338); Taiyuan (424); Bangkok (13); Los Angeles (8); New York (26); Tokyo (22). Levels of particles of smoke in Asian cities (micrograms per cubic meter from 1987 to 1990): Calcutta (400); Beijing (380); Jakarta (280); Hong Kong (120); Bangkok (100); Manila (95); Tokyo (50); New York (60).

Even in remote areas air pollution levels can be alarmingly high. On the nice new highway between Urumqi and Turpan in Xinjiang it s sometimes difficult to make out the wonderful scenery because brownish smoke produced by natural gas refineries and coal plants.

For most of the last two decades, Beijing's residents have endured dense smog caused by industry, coal-fired heating and traffic that increased at a rate of 1,000 vehicles a day. The government issues daily air pollution reports and occasionally warns the young, elderly and people with respiratory problems to remain inside. Even on many ‘blue sky days’ pollution levels are considerably higher than the standards set by the World Health Organization. Red flags are raised outside my school classroom when it is too polluted to go out and play.[Source: Peter Foster, The Telegraph, August 16, 2010]

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Even if they are fond of griping about bad air, Beijing residents have learned to take it all in stride. Looking wilted amid the heat and haze, Wang Dong, 34, a livery-cab driver, said he tried to counteract the smog by eating more vegetables and drinking more water. Annie Chen, 26, a sales clerk, revealed a tactic she had learned on television: apply an extra layer of makeup to protect skin from contaminated air. Then there was Zhang Hedan, 46, a street vendor who was fanning his flushed face with a piece of paper. Maybe it will blow away the dust, he said hopefully. He added, Well, maybe that not so effective, but at least I feel better psychologically.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, July 28, 2010]

See Car Restrictions, Olympic Below

Air Pollution in Beijing
Beijing's smog is a noxious cocktail consisting mainly of heavy automobile exhausts, major coal-fired generators outside of the city and smaller ones located inside the city, as well as dust from construction sites. People sometimes joke that you can smell China’s GDP in the air.

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post: Beijing sits ringed by mountains on its north and west, so when a haze of pollution lumbers in, it just sits, and sits, and sits, until either strong winds or rains come along to push it off to the east. Technically, the stuff in the air is “particulate matter,” defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as dust, dirt, soot and smoke that comes from cars and power plants, like those in the provinces that surround Beijing. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, January 19 2012]

According to a January 2012 report by the Xinhua News Agency, research by Beijing authorities found that 60 percent of the smallest particulate matter in the city’s air comes from coal burning, car emissions and industrial production; 23 percent from dust; and 17 percent from the use of solvents. “The major problem is coal,” said Zhou Rong, a climate and energy campaigner for the environmental group Greenpeace, who wears a face mask when she goes outdoors and bought masks for her colleagues. “Cars are easier to control,” Zhou said. “It is really hard for any Chinese government body to say ‘no more coal.’ ”

On several occasions, pollution combined with fog has been so bad that motorists have had to turn on their headlights in the middle of the day. "The fine particulate matter is what affects visibility and makes it look like a horrible foggy day," Cornell air quality expert Westerdahl told the New York Times. "It also is what most directly affects human health."

Residents long accustomed to a polluted, congested capital are starting to openly complain.“It's a fact that air pollution can damage your personal health,” Wang Xi, 29, a computer engineer, told the Washington Post. He said he has been riding a bicycle in the city for 10 years, first to school and now to work. He started wearing a high-tech mask after experiencing a sore throat.

Complaints about air quality are a staple of conversation in Beijing. From recent Chinese microblog chats came such comments as: "Is it excrement floating in the air today? I'm almost choking to death!" "There is no quality of life when you can't be sure you're not breathing anything poisonous." Over the last year, interior designer Lu Weiwei and a photographer have been taking pictures of people against a backdrop of air, clear or polluted — observing that the mood of the people is often dependent on the air quality. "You don't need sophisticated instruments to tell you what is the air quality," Lu said. "You look up at the sky and if it's clear, it is a good day and you're happy — or not."

What residents find most frustrating is the knowledge that the government is capable of cleaning up the air. It was done in 2008, before the start of the Beijing Olympics, when factories were shut down and tough restrictions were imposed on cars. Shanghai did the same around the time of the Shanghai World Expo last year, and Guangzhou cleaned up in time for the 2010 Asian Games.

Off-the-Scale' Smog Grounds Flights in Beijing
In January 2012, AFP reported: More than 150 flights to and from Beijing were cancelled or delayed as a thick cloud of acrid smog shrouded the city, with US figures saying the pollution was so bad it was off-the-scale. The national meteorological centre said the Chinese capital had been hit by thick fog that reduced visibility to as little as 200m in some parts of the city, while official data judged air quality to be 'good'. [Source: AFP, January 11, 2012]

But the US embassy, which has its own pollution measuring system, said on its Twitter feed that the concentration of the smallest, most dangerous particles in the air was 'beyond index' for most of the morning. The US system measures particles in the air of 2.5 micrometers or less, known as PM2.5, considered the most dangerous for people's health.

The Washington Post reported: Traffic has been backed up more than usual because of the low visibility, and several highways were closed. Parents have been keeping their children indoors. Residents have been racing to buy air purifiers, oxygen generators and face masks.

Air Pollution in Lanzhou

A study by the Washington-based World Resources Institute in the late 1990s reported that nine of the ten cities with the world's worst air pollution were in China. At the top of the list was the northern city of Lanzhou in Gansu Province.

The amount of suspended particles in Lanzhou is twice that of Beijing and 10 times that of Los Angeles. Simply breathing is said to be equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. The pollution is often so bad that people can feel the grit in their noises and between their teeth and routinely develop sore throats, headaches and sinus problems. When children are asked what color the sky is, they often reply: "White, sometimes yellow."

The pollution is caused by coal smoke, car exhaust, pollutants released by petrochemical, metal and heavy industry factories and dust blown from the arid yellow mountains that surround the city. The factories in Lanzhou were placed there in accordance with a plan by Mao to locate heavy industry factories in western China where he thought they would less vulnerable to nuclear attack.

The pollution is especially bad because atmospheric conditions create layers of dense air that trap the pollutants and Lanzhou is located in valley surrounded by mountains that prevent winds from blowing the pollutants away. Shutting down some state-owned factories has helped reduce some of the air pollution there. 

Image Sources: 1) University of Washington; 2) Impact Lab; 3,5 ) Natalie Behring, Bloomberg, Environmental News.; 4) University of Utah; 6) Environmental News; 7) David Wolman Blogspot; 8) NASA; 9) Julie Chao ; You Tube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

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