Known to locals as a “cloud of death”, a thick layer of smog is covering the Chinese city of Beijing as the new year kicks off, with pollution levels “off the charts.” The air quality index released by the municipal environmental protection bureau on Sunday hit 482, almost reaching the 500 mark where the scale tops out, and far beyond the 300 point deemed hazardous to health. The United States Embassy in the Chaoyang district of Beijing gives its own reading for air pollution in the capital and said Sunday that levels were well beyond 500.
The index is based on the number of micrograms of air pollutants in sampled air. Particulates less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM 2.5) are referred to as “fine” particulates and are believed to pose the largest health risks. PM 2.5 particulates are of concern since they are small enough to directly enter the lungs and even the blood stream. PM 2.5 is a standard recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and allows readings to be compared day-to-day and location-to-location. The U.S. EPA has developed a formula to convert PM 2.5 readings into an air quality index (AQI) value that can help inform health-related decisions. For example, an AQI value of 50 represents good air quality with little potential to affect public health, while an AQI value over 300 represents hazardous air quality. On Sunday, the AQI score approached an unheard of score of 600.
Some consider the air quality in Beijing worse than the air quality at Ground Zero in New York City after the collapse of the Twin Towers there in 2001. In 2003, Thomas A. Cahill, Professor Emeritus of Physics and Atmospheric Science at the University of California, Davis, told a reporter at The Atlantic, “I would personally rather breathe the air at the World Trade Center. For the coarser particles, Beijing is far, far worse than the World Trade Center. Beijing is full of really nasty stuff: mercury, lead, cadmium. And, when the wind blows, it re-suspends dirt over roadways.” He added, “The worst days at the World Trade Center lasted only a few weeks while Beijing continues to be massively polluted day after day, month after month, year after year.”
“Somewhere between a campfire and bus exhaust” is how a Weatherboy team meteorologist in Beijing to cover the smog story describes the smell in the air now. “The pollution this holiday weekend is unusual in that it is settling near the ground and around buildings; when you look straight up, you can make out some blue sky. But when you look out side to side, you see this smoke-like blur ooze around everything.”
While the smell and appearance of the smog seem ominous, the EPA warns conditions are exceptionally dangerous. When the AQI exceeds 300, the EPA says there is serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly. The EPA also warns there are serious risks of respiratory effects in the general population. With scores over 300, the EPA warns, “Everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors; people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should remain indoors and keep activity levels low.”
While inside is better than outside, it too isn’t completely safe from the smog. The air pollution easily enters buildings through windows, doors, and heating/cooling systems. “The air is far better inside than outside, but even inside, the air has an acrid odor to it that makes me want to cough from time to time, ” our meteorologist added.
The smog is impacting all aspects of life in Beijing and surrounding areas. Simon Xiao explained restrictions on place to residents of the city. “The last digit in a license plate of every car corresponds to a day of the week people are not permitted to drive. That day of the week rotates every 3 months and is designed to reduce the number of cars on the roads contributing to the pollution,” said Xiao. “If you are caught driving on the day you’re not permitted to, you will be fined and points will be deducted from your license,” he added. Xiao said that once points are depleted from a drivers license there, the license becomes invalid and drivers need to attend recurrent driving training. While the mandatory stay-at-home day seems like it would help reduce air pollution, Xiao tells us that many bypass the rule by using others’ cars that don’t share the same last digit of their license plate.
At the Yonghegong Lama Temple, worshipers are being asked to suspend incense ceremonies there. Buddhists typically light three sticks of incense as part of a prayer ritual before entering the temple, but with China looking to reduce excess air pollution anyway they can, the practice is banned on days the AQI is high.
At the Summer Palace on the northwestern side of the city, some residents hoped to get some more fresh air than what is available in the city center. However, even there in the rural outskirts of the city, the smog is obscuring visibility with unhealthy air pollution levels.
The smog is the result of a variety of factors, natural and man made, that are conspiring together to create a lethal combination. In the winter months, a dry high pressure system is typically anchored over eastern China, keeping the air still and dry. This high pressure system prevents weather systems from entering the area with precipitation and wind which would normally scrub the air of its pollutants. With the still air (our meteorologist was unable to find a wind measurement greater than 3mph in Bejing this weekend), the pollutants have nowhere to go and settle near the surface. With winter season here, coal-fired electrical plants are at maximum capacity to keep buildings warm and lit during winter’s colder, darker days. Chinese New Year arrives later in January, a huge regional celebration in which factories are ramping up production now of items that’ll be purchased/used then. With factories producing at high rates, additional pollutants are pumped into the air.
To deal with the smog until the weather changes, Chinese officials have banned some heavy polluting vehicles and trucks carrying construction waste from area roads while ordering some manufacturing firms to cut production. Some domestic flights and bus lines have been temporarily cancelled until air quality improves. But until industrial pollution is curbed back significantly, the air pollution issues in this part of China will only continue to be bad for the foreseeable future.