Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR's local journalism that brings clarity, context, and community!

Beijing Grapples with Record Air Pollution


Last weekend, air pollution levels in Beijing hit a record high, cloaking China's capital in a thick smog and forcing residents inside. The air quality index measures ozone, carbon monoxide and particles, basically the stuff in the air, and the scale - the index scale that we use for particulate matter here in the U.S. goes from zero to 500. If this reading goes up past 300, that's considered a health hazard.

Well, last Saturday, monitors in Beijing recorded an air quality index of over 750. Remember, that scale is supposedly - supposedly tops out at 500. So what does that off-the-charts pollution mean for residents? We asked Beijing-based journalist and filmmaker Jocelyn Ford.

JOCELYN FORD: Well, I've lived in Beijing for 11 years, and sometimes we call it raging(ph) here(ph) because of the air pollution. But the air pollution last weekend was really beyond anything that I've experienced. And I live on the 16th floor of a building and I have a great view over Beijing. I can usually see about five kilometers, I would say, on a good day. But over the weekend the whole scene out my window basically turned into a Chinese ink painting where I could see just a lot of gray and a few dark objects. I could probably see about 500 meters, I'd say, and that was it.

LICHTMAN: So what's causing all that smog now? And is it going to get worse? David Pettit is a senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council and director of the Southern California Air Program. He joins me by phone from Los Angeles. Welcome to the show.

DAVID PETTIT: Thank you. Good afternoon.

LICHTMAN: So how can a measurement be a 750 on a 500 scale? Does that mean that we've never measured smog this bad before?

PETTIT: I think it means that the engineers who built the scale thought it was ridiculous to have numbers any higher than they did because a circumstance like that would never occur. It's like having a, you know, your car's speedometer go up to 500 miles an hour. Why would you need that?

LICHTMAN: What is that 750 tallying exactly?

PETTIT: Well, there's two different scales that people are using. The air quality index is a relative scale with a hundred on the air quality index, meaning that the conditions are pretty much at the United States EPA limits. But - and so if it's 500, that basically means it's, you know, just substantially, very substantially more than that. You can also look at readings directly from the - both from our embassy and now, for the first time, from the Chinese government, of the particulate matter load. And those are the little tiny particles that you breathe in and you can't get rid of them. They don't come out.

And just yesterday, in fact, in Beijing, the reading of that, the direct reading was about 30 times the United States limit on a 24-hour basis. So it's just unimaginably bad by U.S. standards.

LICHTMAN: And these particulates, they are really tiny, right? They are 2.5 microns, is that - do I have that right?

PETTIT: That's right, about a thirtieth the diameter of a human hair.

LICHTMAN: And what's the deal? Why did it get so bad right now?

PETTIT: Well, I think the consensus is that in the winter in Beijing, and I've been there in the Winter, they get a temperature inversion sometimes, much like we have here in Los Angeles, where I'm talking to you from, where the colder air sort of sits on a lid in the Beijing area and prevents the warmer air underneath from moving around.

Plus there's more coal burning because of the cold weather. And you've just got an enormous number of cars now in Beijing. And you put that all together, you know, with a zero wind condition and that's a recipe for environmental disaster in terms of how people and what people breathe.

LICHTMAN: What are the studied health effects of this kind - of breathing this polluted air?

PETTIT: Well, there's lots of studies on this. It's really pretty well-known. The most dramatic effect and immediate effect is to people who have asthma or their lung function is otherwise compromised. And I've read stories from Beijing that hospital admissions for asthma are up 20 or 30 percent, and that's pretty much what you would expect.

There's also a tremendous problem with young children whose lungs haven't fully developed yet, that a big intake of very small particulate matter can affect their lung function far into the future. Also here in California, our state Air Resources Board has determined that particular matter is a carcinogen. And so it can directly increase your risk of getting cancer.

LICHTMAN: And in the U.S., isn't it like anything above 300 and the EPA says it's dangerous?

PETTIT: Yes. That's on the AQI index. Yes, that's correct.

LICHTMAN: It seems like there are these - also these secondary dangers to having the air clogged with, you know, a fog almost but pollution, because you can't see in front of you. I mean how do you drive in that - in those conditions?

PETTIT: Well, driving in Beijing is a whole different story anyhow. But I mean Jocelyn is right. I've been there - I've been to Beijing a few times recently, and I've been there where I couldn't see, you know, a quarter mile down one of the, you know, the main 10-lane highways that go through downtown Beijing. And yeah, it's a terrible problem. And you know, the air stinks. The air really stinks. I grew up here in Los Angeles and I'm used to - in the old days we had these smog alerts, and I've never smelled anything as bad or felt as badly as I have in Beijing just walking around, perhaps stupidly, on one those really smoggy days.

LICHTMAN: Hmm. I'm Flora Lichtman and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

Talking with David Pettit, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council about the air pollution in Beijing right now. So other than staying indoors, what are ways in which Beijing residents can protect themselves, keep themselves safe?

PETTIT: Well, I know a lot of people in Beijing have air filters. And if you have that, it's, you know, good to crank those up to a maximum level. Those facial masks that you see are good for a while. But when the pollution is this bad, I don't think they really give you much protection. So in the very short range, there's not a lot that you can do. In the longer range, people need to work with the government to cut down on the coal burning for power and heat, and do something about the Beijing traffic.

LICHTMAN: We have a clip from another Beijing-based reporter. Laurie Burkitt is a consumer reporter for The Wall Street Journal. And here's what she had to say about the local response to the pollution.


LAURIE BURKITT: We living in Beijing are somewhat accustomed to having pollution, but we were all warned. The media coverage of the pollution was actually unprecedented in terms of the amount, and actually the criticism, as well.

LICHTMAN: David Pettit, this is an interesting social - there is an interesting social media component to this story. How was the reading - the 750, that notorious reading - first released?

PETTIT: Well, the - going back a while, the U.S. embassy set up its own monitoring system to monitor particulate matter, these small particles we've been talking about. And there's a Twitter feed, actually, that still exists. You know, you can get on it. And they tweeted - the embassy tweeted a level that was just monstrously higher than what the government was reporting. And there was - in the tweet there were something, words something like crazy bad. And that got around and actually caused a bit of diplomatic, you know, kerfuffle. The Chinese weren't too happy about it.

But what's interesting to me in that sense is now these reports - fairly accurate reports, I think, are occurring in the government-controlled Chinese media, which tells me that somebody in the government has figured out that there's a danger to social harmony here and they can't go around, you know, telling people, oh, it's just fog and expect people to believe that.

LICHTMAN: Do you think that social media and Twitter and pictures zooming around the Internet with all over the world puts a different sort of pressure on the government to respond?

PETTIT: Absolutely. I absolutely do think so. And I do know that social harmony is a very important goal for the government and when the problem gets this big, you know, it's not just some local protest over a, you know, manufacturing plant that's polluting the water or something. There are, you know, scores of millions of people affected by this. I think the government felt that they had to respond and they had to tell people, look, we recognize there's a problem, and we're trying to do something about it.

LICHTMAN: Hmm. Is there any danger of this happening in the U.S. to this degree?

PETTIT: Well, I don't think so. One interesting and possibly awful fact is some of this particular pollution that we're reading about, and you can see in the pictures, is likely to wind up in the West Coast of the U.S. I mean it - you know, it doesn't just go away. When the winds finally come up, the stuff will blow over Korea and over Japan, and some of it winds up over here.

In terms of this happening in the U.S., I don't think so. You know, stuff like this used to happen, you know, in the '40s and '50s. But I really don't think that it's going to happen now. The EPA has really cracked down in, you know, the last couple of decades on emissions from coal plants, and the automobiles are much better controlled than they've ever been, so I really don't see this happening here in the U.S.

LICHTMAN: That's about all we have time for today. David Pettit is a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council and the director of the Southern California Air Program. Thanks for joining us.

PETTIT: Thank you.

LICHTMAN: Have a great weekend.

PETTIT: You, too. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.