The Air Quality Crisis in Beijing, China

Beijing, China has a population exceeding 22 million and these 22 million people are breathing polluted air that is often at levels considered hazardous to human health.  The air pollution in Beijing has been so bad as to cause road closures and flight cancellations.  However, Chinese officials are claiming that the air pollution is not as bad as environmental experts believe it to be.

The U.S. Embassy has been monitoring PM 2.5 particulates (particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers pose the greatest health risks) in Beijing, China.  However, the data that is being collected by the U.S. Embassy has caused controversy and fear among the Chinese, sparking debate and even talks of reform in air pollution reporting by Chinese officials. In the past, Chinese officials were measuring larger particles and thus, produced different readings than the U.S. Embassy air quality monitor.  As of January 21, 2011, Chinese officials have started releasing more detailed data on the air quality in Beijing.  This is the first time that Chinese officials have publicly released PM 2.5 air quality measurements.  

Nevertheless, there has been noted differences in the data collected by the Chinese than those collected by U.S. officials. For example, the Chinese officials released air quality readings of 0.015 milligrams per cubic meter on Saturday, January 21, 2011, which according to the Environmental Protection Agency is noted as “good” within a 24-hour exposure period. However, the U.S. Embassy posted a different reading of “moderate” on sites such as Twitter.  Steven Andrews, an environmental consultant, who has been studying the air quality in Beijing since 2006, is already suspicious of the air quality data Chinese officials have been reporting.  Within a 24 hour period, Chinese officials reported seven hourly figures of 0.003 milligrams per cubic meter which is considered to be very low levels of air pollution.  Andrews noted that throughout 2010 and 2011, the U.S. Embassy reported levels at or below 0.003 milligrams only 18 times! Thus, there is definitely something amiss with the data being reported by the Chinese and the people are justly worried and skeptical .

What is even more frightening about the air quality in Beijing is that the the levels of indoor air pollution can be high enough to be classified as hazardous to one’s health, prompting some to invest in air purifiers.  Sadly, not everyone residing in Beijing can afford to invest in air purifiers.  Research that has been conducted on the long term health effects of breathing the air in Beijing has concluded a loss of 5 to 6 years in life expectancy, including higher adult mortality rates for illnesses such as heart and lung disease.

Although not much can be done to reverse the devastating effects coal mining and other industrial pursuits have had on the air quality in Beijing, awareness of the problem is a step forward in the right direction.  Hopefully, with awareness, governments and world leaders can take a stronger stance on preventing further damage from occurring. In addition, there needs to be a consensus on the data that is being collected on air pollution levels in Beijing.  With organization and consensus comes change.

Photo credit: guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jul/28/pollution.carbonemissions

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