Breathing in Beijing may be hazardous to your health

by Ned Levi on August 1, 2008

OK, you’ve got your tickets to the opening ceremony, track, cycling and other Olympic events. Your airline tickets to Beijing are purchased and hotel reservations in order. You’ve read about the pollution in Beijing, so are you going to pack face masks? That’s a question running through the minds of many travelers going to the Olympics this August.

The World Bank reports China has 20 of the 30 most polluted cites in the world, largely due to China’s high coal use, severe traffic problems, a lack of emission controls on motor vehicles, and diesel fuel containing 130 times the sulfur permitted in the US.

Last week the Chinese Government instituted their “Emergency Beijing Olympic Anti-Pollution Plan.” Factories have been shut down all over Beijing, and other cities as far away as 100 miles. Construction projects have been shut down. As many as 60% of cars have been banned from the roads. All this is to make the Olympics safe from air pollution health risks for athletes. What about the tourists?

According to Tong Zhu, an atmospheric chemist at Peking University, “The air pollutants of most concern for athletes and spectators alike are high levels of ozone and particulate matter. Both pollutants pose known respiratory hazards.”

David Streets, of the Argonne National Laboratory explains, “Air quality in Beijing in the summertime is dictated by meteorology and topography. Typically, temperatures are high, humidity is high, wind speeds are low, and the surrounding hills restrict venting of pollution.” It’s like Los Angeles, but Beijing’s emissions are orders of magnitude more than Los Angeles ever had.

Last December, Robert Goodman (Goodman’s Guides), a well known digital cinematography expert from Philadelphia, was in China. Robert told me he felt the pollution in his lungs from the moment he got off the plane. He said you could taste it, and literally feel the grit in the air.

Tuesday this week, a rain storm cleared Beijing’s air. Wednesday’s pollution index was 44. The Chinese government considers readings below 50 good, and from 51 to 100 moderate. The World Health Organization considers China’s “moderate levels” above what they consider healthy. In the week prior to the storm, the index hovered between 110 and 118, which even by China’s standards is unhealthy, and this was with China’s emergency anti-air pollution plan in effect.

By the way, as reported by the Associated Press, by Wednesday evening, Beijing’s gray air pollution haze was back. Unfortunately, storms don’t improve Beijing’s air quality for long, even with the “emergency plan” in place.

The Chinese government insists the air quality of Beijing has dramatically improved, but Steven Andrews in two articles in the Wall Street Journal, accuses Beijing’s Environmental Protection Bureau of tweaking the way it calculates its air pollution index. Mr. Andrews notes in 2000, for example, Beijing stopped including nitrogen oxides and substituted nitrogen dioxide in its index. Nitrogen dioxide is a smaller contributor to the overall air pollution than total nitrogen oxides, according to Andrews.

While it may be alarmist, researchers in pulmonary medicine and critical care at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine warn that those who have known cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, lung disease, or a current smoking habit, who breath Beijing’s high pollution levels may suffer heart attacks and strokes, and increase the possibility of having blood clots in their legs on the plane home.

So what’s a tourist to do? You’re in one of the most historic cities of the world, with tickets to the greatest sporting spectacle in the world, and you don’t want to act like an “ugly American.” Well if it was me, my health comes first, and like many Olympic athletes, even though it will only help with particulates, I’d still have that face mask handy to keep my lungs clear, and I’d stay indoors if the air pollution index was over 110.

I have a serious future concern. Beijing has some real marvels to see; the Forbidden City, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong and The Summer Palace to name just three. In October, the “Emergency Plan” will be lifted, and pollution levels will climb back to their normal unhealthy levels. What about your health as a visitor to Beijing then? Moreover, what about the health of those Chinese citizens living and working in Beijing?

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  • http://www.singleparenttravel.net John F

    Surfing the Internet also may be hazardous to your health as well!

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    I do not advocate wearing mask when it is not needed. However, if it is needed, just putting on a mask may not help. All surgical mask doesn’t seal the face, and even N95 mask does not warrant face fit without a proper fit test. Remember, if a mask doesn’t seal the face, airborne pollutants can easily leak through the gaps and enter your lung.

    For people without the fit-test facility of a hospital, we’ve design TOTOBOBO mask so that you can easily determine if the seal exists between the mask and your face. We’ve conducted many tests in hospital which shown, you can determine if the mask fit or not by simply seeing through the transparent body, you can do this simple yet reliable fit-check anytime when you feel necessary. In case it doesn’t fit, you can cut it to fit, even for children down to age five!

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  • Carrie Charney

    Much as I’d like to visit the panda preserve, I will not go to China. It’s bad enough that a lot of my stuff is made in China. I will not go to a country where they stick it to their own people just to put on a false front to outsiders.

  • Joe Farrell

    When I was in China last November the only blue sky I saw was directly overhead or at the Great Wall in Badaling for about 2 hours mid day. The pollution is truly horrifying. when we left Beijing for hte country side I thought it would get better – nope. I wondered the entire time if all the crap I bought at Walmart was worth this. . . .

    Just IMAGINE how bad it is going to get when the restrictions are lifted after the games – and the factories go to 24/7 to make up the lost production. . . . and the journalists leave and no one will be around to report on the choking air.

  • anonymous

    Bad air and environment is what the Chinese gov’t called population control. Asthma is now standard in China (or Asia in general with all the pollution.)

    Current Chinese gov’t needs to go.

    Buy only what you truly need and practice energy conservation.

  • John

    Carrie Charney said “I will not go to a country where they stick it to their own people just to put on a false front to outsiders.” Have you taken a look at the US government lately? GW Bush and his cronies have been sticking it to us for years. Read the latest books regarding the Iraq war. Take a look at the deterioration of legal rights. Personally, I think sending Americans off to be killed in Iraq for strictly political reasons and restricting personal freedoms is sticking it to our own people.

    Not that I condone the Chinese government, but you really have to look in the mirror before you condemn others. It wasn’t long ago that US air pollution was as bad as China’s. And, courtesy of GW Bush, the “invisible” pollution of water and soil in the US is worse than it’s ever been. How’s that for sticking it to your own people?

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