Clearing the air

Government succumbs to public outcry on data

Clearing the air

'Slight pollution’: you be the judge

Has the population of Beijing just experienced a “People Power” moment?

In a turnabout decision, the government last week said it would begin reporting figures on fine particulate air pollution, or PM 2.5, the main cause of haze in the city (it refers to particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter).

Doubts still remain about the accuracy of the planned readings. A trial reading on Tuesday recorded a PM 2.5 reading of 300, the Beijing News reported, while an independent monitor at the United States embassy recorded 500 (the maximum measurable level).

But at least there is a commitment to releasing fuller data. China aims to reach levels of 75 in PM 2.5 scores, although the World Health Organisation recommends annual averages of 10, while acknowledging levels are likely to be higher in developing nations.

Even the China targets look like being some way off in many parts of the country. In a rare five-year study on Xi’an published this month by the prestigious Environmental Health Perspectives journal, the daily average was 182. Beijing air was also poor at 122, while Shanghai’s was a little better at 55. Industrial Shenyang recorded 75, the study found.

PM 2.5 is considered one of the most dangerous form of airborne pollution. A mixture of fossil fuel combustion, chemicals and dust, the fine particles can enter the bloodstream via the lungs, penetrating the brain.

For five years, environmental authorities in Beijing have secretly measured PM 2.5, Xinhua reports. But they haven’t publicised their findings, and even resorted to asking the US embassy in Beijing to make its own Twitter feed of PM 2.5 measurements unavailable to local citizens.

The embassy refused and its data has consistently suggested pollution levels far worse than the government’s official assessment (which was based on PM 10, bigger particles, as well as a laxer measurement scale).

On the worst days of choking air, the embassy’s “hazardous” levels were classified by the government rankings only as “slight pollution”, a matter of growing anger in Beijing (see WiC126). More people began to refer to the embassy feed, often via local pickups (Twitter is banned in China.)

Last October, the public mood tipped, after two months of heavy pollution hit the city. Weibo, China’s popular microblogs, exploded in complaint. Pan Shiyi, a well-known property developer (see page 8), conducted a survey that showed 98% of over 42,000 respondents wanted the true PM 2.5 information publicised as soon as possible.

The government seems to have bowed to the pressure.

“Just before Spring Festival this year, the capital city will start releasing data about the amount of tiny particulate matter that is detected in the air,” Xinhua said on January 7.

Liu Qi, Party chief for Beijing, added that officials wanted to meet public expectations, Xinhua reported.

The change is not restricted to Beijing. Tianjin and Hebei provinces, the Yangtze River and Pearl River deltas, two major municipalities and all provincial capitals will also release PM 2.5 data this year, the government has confirmed.

In 2015, cities below provincial capital level will follow suit.

The Xi’an study, which its authors say is the first of its kind looking at PM 2.5 and mortality in the developing world, found a “significant” correlation between pollution and illness in surrounding populations.

People are now hoping for action, not just information.

“It’s definitely a step forward in improving the city’s air quality, even though the capital is not doing as much as some of the other cities,” Wang Qiuxia, a researcher at Green Beagle, an environmental protection group based in Beijing, told Xinhua.

“It is absolutely a good thing that the government finally plans to make these readings public,” said Yang Yanli, a 25 year-old Beijing accountant.

“I hope they’ll take measures to improve the air, such as shutting down the companies that are the worst polluters.”

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