August 7, 2008

Pollution Still a Problem on Eve of the Olympics

BEIJING -- Hali Zhati is a 15-year-old Chinese boxer who trains near Tiananmen Square at the Shi Cha Hai Sports School. Daily runs are part of his regimen, and Zhati reports there are "more and more good days now" for breathing Beijing's air.

But some days he wears a mask. Other times, his coach keeps the boxers indoors.

"When there is bad air, it is not good to train outside," Zhati said.

With one day before the opening ceremonies, it's still touch-and-go on whether Beijing will have good or bad air for the Olympics. In the last few days, the city has seen both blue skies and thick shrouds of gray.

China promised to clean the air in Beijing when it won the right to host the Summer Olympics, and the country's top leaders say the goal is being met.

The Olympics have thrown a spotlight on one of the country's most serious public health problems. China's breakneck economic growth for the last 30 years has led to severe and growing air and water pollution.

"Even though in theory they've been working towards this green Olympics since 2001, they always wind up relying on stopgap, draconian measures," said Elizabeth Economy, a China environmental expert with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "We won't know until Aug. 24 whether they'll succeed or not."

The government blames this week's murky days on fog caused by 90-plus-degree temperatures and humidity levels above 70 percent. The Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau's 27 monitoring stations have measured the air quality as excellent, fairly good or slightly polluted for the last week.

But during that same period, a pollution measurement device maintained by the British Broadcasting Corp.'s Beijing bureau has shown readings for tiny particles of soot or particulate matter well above the World Health Organization's recommended levels for healthy air.

Land features outside Beijing contribute to the problem, said K. Max Zhang, an assistant professor of engineering at Cornell University who is monitoring air quality in Beijing during the Olympics.

"The city of Beijing is surrounded by mountains on three sides, a topography not favorable for pollutant dispersion," Zhang said in an e-mail. "Under conditions of stagnant air and low inversion, pollutant concentrations can build up even though the emissions levels are low."

For more than a year, pollution has been on the minds of American athletes and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The committee issued masks to national governing bodies that requested them, and four American cyclists caused a stir Tuesday by wearing them as they arrived in the capital. They later issued a written apology to the Beijing Olympic organizing committee.

Beijing is one of 16 Chinese cities that are among the world's 20 smoggiest cities, according to the World Health Organization.

"Every year, 750,000 people die of respiratory illnesses" aggravated by air pollution, said Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum in Washington. "Between 2005 and 2007, cancer rates increased 23 percent in rural China and 19 percent in urban areas."

The estimates come from both the Chinese government and the World Health Organization.

To clear the air for the Games, the Chinese government has closed power, cement and steel plants in Beijing and neighboring provinces. It's cut by more than half the number of cars on the road. Beijing City Hall reports that more than 2,000 dry cleaners, printing plants and furniture manufacturers have been given emissions-control upgrades, along with 14,000 caterers.

Vacant lots and construction sites are watered down to control dust. Much of the city's economic life is shutting down because of restrictions on deliveries.

The government has promised even tougher restrictions if unhealthy air develops during the Olympics, including taking nine out of 10 cars off the road.

The Beijing Olympics are a source of enormous pride for Chinese across the country and around the world, and television shots showing dimly visible skyscrapers wrapped in smog have caused both embarrassment and anger.

Fan Yuansheng, director of Beijing's Environmental Protection Bureau, says the pictures show fog rather than pollution.

"I believe the chance of rescheduling any (Olympic) event because of air quality is very low," he said Sunday.

Last week, the government announced that provincial leaders must reduce pollution by 20 percent over the next five years or face dismissal. Science and Technology Minister Wan Gang is pushing companies and universities to reach for breakthrough technologies in pollution control that would allow China to overcome its current bad air and water problems while still enjoying rapid economic growth.

But Economy, who meets frequently with Chinese environmental officials, said mandates from the central government about pollution usually lose their bite by the time they reach local officials.

"They are endemically corrupt. Collusion among local governments and factory managers is the norm," she said. "Half the money invested in environmental protection research is diverted to other things unrelated to environmental protection."

Beijing's Environmental Protection Bureau reports major gains in the last 10 years in curbing emissions of sulfur dioxide (down 60.8 percent since 1998), carbon monoxide (down 39.4 percent), nitrogen dioxide (down 10.8 percent) and inhalable particulates (down 17.8 percent).

Steven Andrews, a Washington-based environmental consultant, concluded after a review of Beijing's preparations for cleaning the air during the Olympics that the Chinese relocated air monitoring stations to achieve cleaner results.

The Chinese deny that.

"That's just not true," said Wenrong Qian, director of the Xinhua Institute of Studies in Beijing. "I first came to Beijing in 1958, and the air is much, much cleaner than it was then. It's cleaner now than it was last year."