July 29, 2008
10 Days Before Games, Lingering Smog Worries Beijing
BEIJING -- After three days of grimly gray, hazy skies, the delicate sound of thunder early this morning accompanied overnight rain in the host city of the 2008 Olympic Games.
And as dawn lifted, residents, athletes and Olympic visitors were greeted by the sight of still grimly gray and only slightly less hazy skies.
With 10 days remaining until the Aug. 8 Opening Ceremony, the quality of Beijing's environment is re-emerging as an issue of concern, and authorities are considering emergency measures beyond the traffic restrictions and factory shutdowns that, so far, have failed to clear the air, state media reported on Monday.
China's official English-language newspaper, China Daily, ran a front-page story Monday under a bold-faced headline: "Emergency green plan for Games." The article warned that officials might force far more vehicles off city streets -- possibly 90 percent of the city's total -- and temporarily close more factories.
Air quality earlier this week was described as among the worst in Beijing in the past month. But new arrivals who glance toward the sky and wonder what happened to the sun must keep in mind, said Du Shaozhong, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, that appearances can be deceiving.
"Under certain circumstances there may be bad visibility on foggy days, rainy days," he said this week. "It is like when taking a bath in the bathroom. It doesn't mean there is pollution.
"Whether the sky is blue has something to do with air quality, but it is not equated with air quality. We need to focus on statistics gathered through a monitoring process."
The numbers, however, also indicate reason for concern. Beijing's Chaoyang district, site of the Olympic Green complex, had among the city's highest concentrations of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide on Monday, according to figures reported by the Environmental Protection Bureau.
Particulate matter hovered just below the "light high" category but was significantly lower in the Olympic Green area than in other parts of the city.
Monday, however, was said to be better than Sunday, when temperatures in the 90s, humidity in the 70s and a lack of wind produced conditions that the bureau described as "unhealthy for sensitive groups."
Traffic restrictions China's government has restricted traffic in the past month, effectively removing about half of the city's 3.3 million vehicles from roadways, but visibility was only about a half-mile Sunday. During the opening ceremony of the Athletes' Village, the housing complex was invisible from the Olympic Green.
"No, it doesn't really look so good, but as I said, yesterday was better," Gunilla Lindberg, an International Olympic Committee vice president from Sweden who is staying in the Athletes' Village, told The Associated Press on Sunday. "The day I arrived, Tuesday, was awful.
"We try to be hopeful. Hopefully we are lucky during the games as we were with Atlanta, Athens and Barcelona," she added.
Dr. Janice Schaeffer, a pulmonologist who founded the Breathe Easy Play Hard Foundation to advise athletes and youths with asthma who wish to compete in sports, said the daily pollution numbers will be secondary to wind velocity in terms of determining good conditions for athletes.
"I think the measures that have been put in place will have a minimal impact," she said. "What will do the most is the wind, and we don't have any control over that."
Schaeffer said athletes with asthma and those competing in endurance events, such as the marathon, cycling and triathlon, will be most affected by the combination of pollution and Beijing's heat and humidity.
Some teams from the United States and other countries plan to train in South Korea, Japan and elsewhere to avoid the pollution. A few delegations, including the U.S. Olympic Committee, are providing protective masks to their athletes.
Du, with the city's environmental bureau, said pollution levels have decreased from a year ago and that the 14 days of rain during June lead him to believe air quality will continue to improve in August.
Dr. Patrick Schamasch, an orthopedic surgeon who is the IOC's medical and scientific director, said readings for ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide fell within 2005 guidelines set by the World Health Organization, but he did not disclose levels.
"Today, there is nothing critical preventing an athlete from running, except the visibility," Schamasch said. "I can tell you it's mist more than smog."
He said conditions were "not worse" than in other cities that hosted the games, mentioning Los Angeles, Atlanta and Athens.
Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC, has said outdoor endurance events will be postponed if the air quality is poor. The world's greatest distance runner, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, has decided not to run the marathon because the city's pollution irritates his breathing.