Problem masked

Beijing air quality plummets, controversy ensues

Problem masked

Air of despair in the capital

Most of China takes a whole week off to celebrate its October 1 National Day, and tourists flock to landmarks like Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City.

This year everything started out well under a blue autumn sky. But by day four of the holiday the air was thick with a grainy-looking, grey pall.

By Sunday, October 9 a foreign doctor at the upscale Beijing United Family Hospital was alarmed enough to issue a warning on his Sina Weibo account, China’s most popular microblog.

“Beijing’s air pollution levels are right now astonishingly high and very hazardous to anyone,” Richard Saint Cyr posted in English.

“Please, everyone take care!”

His concern: air quality was measuring over 500 for fine particulate matter, literally off the charts (500 is the maximum reading, according to American air quality standards). Saint Cyr advised: wear a mask.

Chinese users quickly translated and reposted the warning widely.

But Saint Cyr wasn’t getting his information from the Beijing Municipal Environment Bureau, which reported in contrast that pollution that day was only “slight”.

Instead he was relying on BeijingAir, a Twitter feed run by the United States embassy that delivers hourly readings from measuring machines within embassy grounds. And unlike the government’s official readings, which measure PM10, or coarse particulate matter, BeijingAir records readings for PM2.5, or fine particulate matter. The finer the particulates, the more damaging the health consequences are thought to be.

The city government has long resented the embassy’s pollution reports, as they invariably find the air quality to be worse than the official figures. In 2009 the embassy was asked to block Chinese traffic from visiting the website, according to recently leaked Wikileaks documents. It declined, and relations remain tense.

Reaction to Saint Cyr’s smog warning was swift among ordinary Chinese. “Scary”, wrote one user named dodo_zq.

“Beijing is my hometown. Although I worry about the situation here, I can’t run away…” wrote a user named Feichai de youshou.

Meng Xianle, who said he works at the People’s Daily-owned Health Times newspaper, posted: “In one day I have referred two sick people to the doctor. I’ve all along suspected air pollution is the leading reason for this.”

In September, the World Health Organisation ranked Beijing the 10th dirtiest capital city in the world, based on government readings.

Meanwhile Saint Cyr’s warning then turned into a public spat, with the Global Times challenging his advice.

Advising Beijingers to wear face masks was “unnecessary scaremongering”, the state-run newspaper wrote.

“Though many web users showed great concern over the deteriorating air quality in Beijing after reading his microblog, Chinese doctors, local residents and the Municipal Environment Protection Bureau seem less worried,” it said.

Du Shaozhong, deputy head of the local bureau, assured the newspaper: “It was only slight pollution, which was not bad enough for people to wear masks.”

“The suggestion to wear 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,” said an anonymous doctor, and specialist in respiratory diseases at the People’s Hospital of Peking University, whose view was quoted.

There was more chastisement from ordinary citizens.

Ren Shaokang, from the city’s Huilongguan suburb, was also dismissive of the more pessimistic data: “I believe in the Chinese official data and don’t think the air seriously affects us. Even when we can see the air is bad, white collar workers like us don’t have the time to think about wearing masks anyway.”

Ren’s defiance is all the more surprising – given he suffers from tracheitis, a respiratory tract disease.

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