Sunday, 10 February 2013

No Sight in Beijing

Oh boy, was I lucky! Just back from a weeklong policy dialogue tour to China (sponsored by the German agency GIZ), I have adopted Beijing residents´ daily habit of consulting air pollution levels on mobile-phone apps. The few days I spent in Beijing, 1st to 7th of February, levels of air pollution seem to have been abnormally low, even “healthy”. (True, the crisp sunny weather in China was a welcome change from the permanent rain in Paris and Berlin this winter).  

While there are several apps to upload on your smartphone, there seems only one reliable source. The US embassy has an air quality monitor to measure PM 2.5 particulates, the publication of which has been at times criticized as interference by the Chinese government. According to the US Environment Protection Agency, "particulate matter" (PM) includes both solid particles and liquid droplets found in air. Particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (PM2.5) are referred to as "fine" particles and are believed to pose the largest health risks. Because of their small size (less than one-seventh the average width of a human hair), fine particles can lodge deeply into the lungs. Pollutants such as particle pollution are linked to a number of significant health effects -- and those effects are likely to be more severe for sensitive populations, including people with heart or lung disease, children, and older adults.

January 2013 has been the worst month ever as Beijing air quality often reached hazardous levels, with 26 days in January rated heavily polluted. The burning of coal in Beijing contributes to about 20 per cent of the city's smog, according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Atmospheric Physics. Pollutants from Beijing´s neighboring regions (Tianjin, Shandong and Shanxi) account for 20 per cent and the capital's vehicle (often German cars in long versions) emissions for another 25 per cent. Thick dirty smog is not just a problem in Beijing, to be sure, but severely affects many cities in North and central China above all.

Flying to China, my Chinese neighbor had told me how she and her family would escape the smog by moving first part of their business and then her (two!) daughters and husband to Oxford, England. And I was told of more plans to leave. Many foreign residents whom I met love to work in Beijing, where all the action is to allow a fascinating professional life. But those with children seem to plan an exit now after that terrible January as their kids have asthma and other respiratory problems.

Health studies have shown a significant association between exposure to fine particles and premature mortality. Other important effects include aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular disease (as indicated by increased hospital admissions, emergency room visits, absences from school or work, and restricted activity days), lung disease, decreased lung function, asthma attacks, and certain cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks and cardiac arrhythmia. Individuals particularly sensitive to fine particle exposure include older adults, people with heart and lung disease, and children.

Unlike Singapore, an “early cleaner” in its development process, China is definitely a late cleaner. Burning coal for primary energy and driving ever more cars will intensify the problem and put a break on growth in China´s big cities. The simple solution to reduce smog levels, just waiting for winds to blow it all away, won´t definitely do any longer.

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