Sunday, January 13, 2013

Beijing air pollution hits all time high

The Chinese capital, Beijing, has been experiencing probably the worst air pollution for more than two decades, and the seriousness of the situation has begun to worry more than just expats. 

The situation was reflected across the country with 33 of some 74 cities being monitored showing readings of "hazardous" this weekend. But Beijing has been singled out as being one of the worst after pollution levels rose so significantly it was put at being 22 times the World Health Organisation's recommended average for the amounts of the smallest particles in the air, under 2.5 micrograms, the most dangerous size of pollutants.

In fact the level being measured at one point was almost twice the maximum levels on the World Health Organisation scale [].

Twitter was flooded with comments, mostly coming from expats using VPNs since the social network is blocked in China. Many referred to a reference made by the US Embassy's monitoring station which in November 2010 referred to the air quality as being 'crazy bad' [tvnewswatch: Twitpic / Guardian].  

The US embassy has infuriated the Chinese authorities by publishing the latest air quality measurements through its Twitter feed every hour, readings that expose that the official figures do not give a true picture.

In the past the @BeijingAir tweets did not give figures beyond the 500 scale set by the WHO. At that time the monitoring station did not post figures above 500 which is classed as "hazardous". As such the US Embassy merely stated that air pollution levels were "beyond index". However, recently air pollutant levels have been published showing numbers rising to as high as 755 [Twitter]. 

There has been much online debate as what to call such high levels of air pollution. Many referred back to the infamous 2010 tweet suggesting it be called "crazy crazy bad". Others described the air quality as "postapocalyptic," "terrifying" and "beyond belief." The New York Times described it quite accurately as being somewhat like an airport smoking room. The high levels would certainly prompt the question as to whether the WHO needed to redefine their labels, perhaps adding "extremely hazardous" and "life threatening" to the list.

Even Beijing authorities have acknowledged that the city pollution is having a detrimental effect on the population. In 2008 the birth defect rate rose again on previous years' figures in Beijing, mirroring increases elsewhere in the country, according to official government figures. According to Chinese officials Beijing saw a defect rate of 170 per 10,000 births in 2008, significantly higher than the global average [BBC].

The effects are experienced by people across all walks of life but it is the young who are particularly at risk. Outside Beijing's largest children's hospital one mother, surnamed Yu, told an ITN  reporter that she brought her daughter to see the doctors twice a month because of respiratory problems. "I am worried about my daughter, the air pollution is very bad and it definitely affects my daughter's health", she said. Other parents also aired their concerns. "I have to keep my son at home every day. He's so bored, but the air is so bad for children," one parent said. "Beijing is developing so fast there are so many cars on the streets, I would suggest if people don't have to drive they should not use their cars".

In fact it is Beijing's estimated five million cars and China's almost total reliance on coal-fired power, combined with cold weather and no wind, that is blamed for the appalling air. Authorities are beginning to recognise the seriousness of the situation and even Chinese media are now reporting on what was once a sensitive subject. Chinese television this week reported on the poor air quality and had a special page detailing the risks to health. But the subject of China's pollution problem remains an issue far more discussed in foreign media [Sky / BBC / CNN / Al Jazeera / Reuters / IBTimes / FT].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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