Breathing Badly in Beijing

Beijing pollution

The air quality is Beijing qualifies the city as one of the most polluted in the world. (Photo credit: beijingstory/E+/Getty Images)

Very few people who watched the 2008 Olympics in Beijing will forget the pageantry and spectacle of the event. Prior to the competition, however, a great deal of news coverage focused on the cleanup efforts that the Chinese government made to clean up the air surrounding Beijing. More than $17 billion were spent and preparations included shutting down factories and limiting automobile traffic for the two-month time period between July 20 and September 17.

One of the most polluted cities in the world, Beijing is once again finding itself in the news. Measured by an air quality index scale that tops off at a value of 500, readings during mid-January of this year have reached 755, more than 25 times what is considered safe in the United States. Residents are refusing to venture outside, keeping doors and windows closed, and running air purifiers at maximum. Those who do have to go outside do so muffled in scarves and other types of masks and air filters. Many believe that the air pollution levels are the worst in Beijing’s history, certainly the worst since consistent pollution monitoring began a year ago.

Residents worry about estimates made by Beijing University that indicate the number of people dying from pollution-related respiratory illnesses is three times the number of people who die in traffic accidents. The dangerous air quality is particularly affecting children, with Beijing’s main children’s hospital treating as many as 3,000 children per day with respiratory diseases. The corridors outside the emergency room are lined with rows of toddlers and infants with IV’s inserted, all waiting to be seen by doctors.

The blinding, smelly smog that blankets the city and the surrounding area originates with the burning of fossil fuels and widespread disregard of environmental laws. The poisonous air is held in place over the city by cold air and no wind movement, a weather condition known as a temperature inversion, trapping the pollutants near the ground. The circumstances bring to mind the “pea soup” fogs of London, England, that began as early as the 1200s, when most forests belonged to the nobility and people began to burn coal. It wasn’t until a four-day period in 1952, now known as “The Great Smog,” when more than 4,000 people died from air pollution, that serious air pollution reform began in England.

With the world’s largest population, just heating homes in the winter burns enough coal to be responsible for about half of the air pollution and smog. Even though the government is taking emergency measures by temporarily shutting down building sites and factories, China produces 70 percent of the world’s iron and steel and about half of the cement used globally. Those facilities cannot stay closed for long without dire economic effects. Temporary measures will only have temporary effects, especially if they are only put into use in Beijing alone. Hourly pollution levels tracked by the Chinese government show that almost half of the 74 cities being monitored are showing levels of severe pollution.

More to Explore
Beijing Air Pollution: Real-time Air Quality Index
Pollution-free Days of Beijing Olympics Now Just a Happy Memory
Pollution in Beijing Increases by 30%
China: Getting Serious About Air Pollution?
Life in a Toxic Country

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