Eleven days to clean air? Olympic host says yes.
Chinese officials say recent antipollution rules are helping. Critics question their data.
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“Given the geographical location of Beijing and so on, it is rather difficult to improve air quality and cut emissions,” he added.Skip to next paragraph
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International Olympic officials have said that Beijing’s air quality is one of their major concerns. IOC president Jacques Rogge warned last year that some endurance events, such as the marathon and road bicycle races might have to be postponed if the air quality is not satisfactory on race day.
Earlier this year, Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the IOC medical commission, told reporters that he feared athletes “may not perform at the best level” in polluted conditions. “We may not see much of world records” he said.
Competitors have begun to arrive in Beijing, with large numbers more expected this week. The Athletes Village, where many will be housed, had its opening ceremony Sunday.
Some Olympic teams, including the US one, are being issued face masks to protect them during training and daily life while in China. Du scoffed at such plans, saying athletes’ masks “would only end up an extra item in their luggage, and make their luggage heavier.”
Chinese officials’ insistence that Beijing’s air quality has been improving steadily since the city declared war on pollution in 1998 belies the facts and has contributed to the problem, according to Mr. Andrews.
“These positive messages take away from the message of enforcement,” he says. “Because they say it’s getting better, they lack the incentive to take the steps they really need to.”
The improving figures do not reflect reality, says Andrews, who has scrutinized official air quality statistics and finds them wanting.
In 2000, he points out, the government relaxed the standard for permissible levels of nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere, which instantly improved the statistical quality of the air but did not reduce actual levels of the pollutant.
At the same time, the authorities stopped public reporting of ozone levels (popularly known as smog). In many countries, high ozone levels are reported and regularly used to alert citizens of a public health hazard. But in China, no ozone reports means, “it can be a ‘blue sky day’ in official terminology, but it can be awful outside,” Andrews says.
In 2006, the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau removed two monitoring stations in high-traffic zones from the sample from which it derives a city-wide average, and replaced them in 2008 with three stations outside the city limits, according to Andrews’ study.
Further doubt over official figures was cast by a paper published this year in the scientific journal Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health by a group of researchers at the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences.
Testing Beijing’s air during the “Olympic period” last year, from August 7 to September 30, the researchers found that although sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide levels met Chinese standards, they were as much as 33 percent higher than the officially reported figures.
They found that particulate levels were 50 percent higher than officially reported, and that ozone levels were above the Chinese standard (which is twice as high as the WHO standard) on more than half the days measured.
If pollution does not ease in the next week, officials are reportedly considering even harsher restrictions on vehicle use in Beijing. In the end, however, air quality during the Games will depend greatly on the weather. “All they can do,” says one official with the organizing committee “is to pray for wind and rain.”