Hold Your Breath

We’re a few hours from 2008, which is one of those big years bringing big things: an election, February 29th, and the Summer Olympics. Since the election is already nauseating, and I can’t think of Feb 29th topics, I’m gonna talk about the Olympics. Not the actual Olympics, since they haven’t happened yet, and the most entertaining thing about them tends to be the awkward and insensitive color commentary during the opening ceremonies parade, anyway (-“What country is that?” -“They have nice track suits.” -“I guess Djibouti didn’t send a very big team this year.” -“You bet Dji- booty!*guffaw*”). China’s drive to clean up its country and its people in time for the Games is a pretty epic task.

As part of the NYT’s series on pollution in China (specifically, the tenth part), Beijing’s efforts to clear the air are parsed. Since they won the 2008 Olympics in 2001, they’ve been working on cleaning up air pollution in and near the city, increasing the number of official “Blue Sky Days” from about 180 to 245 in 2007. The Blue Sky measurements reflect three air pollutants- nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter- and don’t include important culprits like ozone. They barely met 245 days in 2007– it was their target number- and only strong winds blowing off the smog cover of the last 10 days allowed them to squeak through with a day to spare.

Air quality is a special concern for the Olympics because of the enormous number of people attending, to whom China would like to portray itself as a livable, likable place, and for the athletes themselves, who spend much of their time breathing especially hard. From the NYT,

Average daily levels of PM 10 [particulate matter, ie tiny lung-destroying bits] exceed national and W.H.O. standards. In 2004, the concentration of airborne particulates in Beijing equaled that of New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago and Atlanta combined, according to the United States Embassy in Beijing. Earlier this year, a report by the United Nations Environment Program concluded that “air pollution is still the single largest environmental and public health issue affecting the city.”

According to measurements by American and Chinese scientists,

Beijing’s daily concentrations of PM 2.5 rated anywhere from 50 percent to 200 percent higher than American standards. Their study, published in the journal Atmospheric Environment, also found that ozone regularly exceeded levels deemed safe by American standards.

Now, forget that world-class athletes don’t want to gulp that stuff in for a couple weeks, and imagine the damage it does to the residents of Beijing over the years. The government is promising to clean the skies for the Games, even if it has to shut down factories in and around the city, and outlaw driving for a while. The temporary measures might placate the rhythmic gymnasts, but it won’t solve Beijing’s underlying problems of shoddy public transportation, particulate emissions from the huge construction boom in the city, pollution from inefficient manufacturing, and the increasing number of cars on the road. Let’s hope they view breathable Olympics not as the end goal, but as the first step in a long road to sustainable prosperity.

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1 Response to “Hold Your Breath”


  1. 1 millie December 30, 2007 at 10:45 pm

    Remind me again how Beijing happened to get the Olympics in the first place – I thought there was a check list of requirements in order for a city to be awarded the Big Games. If I recall, Beijing beat out several cleaner cities.

    There are several interesting articles about the choice. This is just one of the many:

    http://www.iht.com/articles/2001/07/13/edsham.php


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