Postcard from Beijing: I think that’s where I am
Anyone in Beijing could not have missed the sticky blanket of smog that clung to the city early Wednesday, when air quality was regarded as “hazardous” for several hours.
At 6am I stood on the balcony of my apartment and could not see further than about 1km in the distance. The buildings that were visible appeared through a smoky haze and the air felt warm and thick on my skin.
In my ears was the constant hum of construction that hasbeen the soundtrack to my first Chinese summer.
I have accepted that poor air quality is just part of the package of living in a vibrant city like Beijing. In fact, the sky was consistently clearer than I expected when I first arrived in the spring.
But there are days – like yesterday when I felt I needed a shower after just standing on the balcony – when I’m very concerned about the pollution’s long-term impact.
Chinese meteorologists said the greyness was low-lying cloud cover combined with humid conditions
Officials say air quality in Beijing is the best that it has been in nine years. The Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau said there were 146 “blue sky days” in the first six months of this year,
the best data since 2000.
The government calls days with an air pollution index (API) of 100 or less “blue sky days.” An API of over 100 can trigger health complications.
However, not everyone is convinced the data is accurate. The US embassy in Beijing has begun releasing its own air quality reports on a Twitter feed named BeijingAir, with the latest information updated every hour.
It operates a single station in the Chaoyang district that records particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, which go into your lungs and bloodstream, while China’s system measures particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter.
From 7am –9am yesterday, the twitter feed reported air quality as between “unhealthy and “very unhealthy” – the latter meaning that people with heart and lung disease, older adults and children should
avoid all physical activity outdoors and that everyone else should avoid prolonged physical exertion.
At 10am, it recorded a ‘hazardous” reading of 347, which is 47 points above the highest alert level on the US Environmental Protection Agency guideline, or in other words, it was off the scale. It remained at “hazardous” levels for at least another two hours.
The twitter feed records air samples in just one area and cannot be considered an accurate guide to the city’s overall air quality, but its popularity highlights the deep mistrust that people feel about official data and recording methods. Chinese officials are reported to be considering more accurate measures for recording air quality.
The Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau has 27 monitoring stations across the city and publishes air quality data each day. The stations recorded the API as between 100 and 120 or “lightly polluted” between noon on Wednesday and noon yesterday. The station in Chaoyang district, near the US embassy, posted a reading of 118.
Next week, the city will mark one year since the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, when Beijing claimed to have beat its pollution problems, despite some smoggy days, after it shut down dozens of factories and removed 45 percent of cars from the roads.
Some of those policies remain in place today, including watered-down restrictions on cars based on license plate numbers, which results in about 20 percent of the city’s 3.5 million vehicles off the road on weekdays.
But some motorists are flouting these bans. During a taxi ride in to the city last week, the driver pointed out several cars that had their license plates obscured. Other drivers are apparently buying multiple license plates to ensure their car can stay on the road.
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