Environment

Very particular

Beijing citizens worry about pollution levels not even being reported

Was it the tipping point for public acceptance of poor air quality in Beijing? That was one question in October, as the pollution shrouding the capital hit dangerous levels for 18 of 30 days (see graphic on the right where severe days are denoted in worsening shades of red, passable days in yellow and good days in green).

On the last weekend of the month, the city’s Emergency Rescue Centre reported a 30% spike in patients being treated for respiratory problems, with a 14% increase in strokes, the Global Times reported.

The public mood soured further on news that senior officials working in the Zhongnanhai leadership compound had their own special air purifiers, which they take with them on trips around the country. This fuelled resentment among Beijingers frustrated by “the almost unbearable dirty air” and the slow pace of clean-up campaigns, said the South China Morning Post.

The locals were once prepared to excuse the grey pall as ‘fog,’ but many now call it ‘haze,’ or ‘mai, 霾’, implying it is pollution rather than the weather darkening the skyline. The debate has also centred on getting more accurate information when pollution is at its worst, with concerns that the official reports classify even the worst days of smog as only “slightly polluted”.

That’s because government stations monitor PM 10, or the particulate matter that measures up to 10 micrometres in diameter, which enters the lungs and bronchioles as soot, chemicals, metal or dust. Yet scientists agree that a leading cause of the current haze is also the more dangerous PM 2.5, finer particulates generated in coal and diesel combustion which can enter the blood and organs, including the brain.

Authorities have the technical ability to measure PM 2.5, activists say. But they choose not to because they know the readings would then reveal the true scale of the problem.

“If we added PM 2.5 measurement, the air quality in China’s cities would drop from 80% being standard to just 20%,” Zhang Yuanhang, head of Beijing University’s Engineering Institute and an environmental science professor, told the West Times. That would obviously heighten public concerns about their air.

For now the government says it won’t make PM 2.5 measurement mandatory until 2016, even though an unofficial weibo poll announced by the property developer Pan Shiyi, chairman of SOHO China, found that 91% of 42,189 people want readings this year. Only 2% said they didn’t want to know at all.

Nonetheless, Deborah Seligsohn at the ChinaFAQs blog says the 2016 commitment is an important step in its own right, with China not as far behind other countries as you might imagine. Enforcement on PM 2.5 standards in the US didn’t begin until about five years ago, and Europe only started collecting data in 2008.

All the same, other cities have talked about taking the initiative on PM 2.5 measurement.

A count was even included in a forecast by the Nanjing Meteorological Bureau for the first time on November 14 but was later removed, Modern Express reported. Published through the bureau’s official weibo account, the warning was that the air was “very” polluted. But hours later it was gone, with the bureau explaining the PM 2.5 reading couldn’t be given as it was yet to be listed as a national standard.

Not true: it was officially included from November 1.

Shanghai has since said it will introduce PM 2.5 readings next year and eastern Shandong has announced that it will too – but only publish the results once a month.

Which is why ­for timely warnings Beijingers continue to look at hourly updates published by BeijingAir, a Twitter feed published by the US Embassy, which has a monitoring machine on its roof.


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