China's 'Breathable' Pollution Breaks Index

Photographer: Paula Bronstein, Getty Images

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Photographer: Paula Bronstein, Getty Images

A smoky brown haze settled over Beijing on a recent Saturday night, dense enough to blur buildings viewed across a city street.

Beijing's environmental agency reported "light pollution" and "breathable" air. A $20,000 device sitting atop the U.S. embassy, located blocks from the city's monitor, had different words to describe the evening.

China's unprecedented speed of industrialization has made it the global leader in many categories, including pollution. The nation passed the U.S. as the world's leading energy user last year, and its appetite for coal is still surging. All you need for confirmation is a whiff of Beijing on a smoggy night.

The U.S. embassy's sensor measures air pollutants and assembles a 500-point air quality index from the data. On Oct. 22, it reached 434. The embassy machine generated a terse caution that went out to thousands of people who subscribe to updates on Twitter or an iPhone application: "Health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected." By U.S. comparison, monitors in New York read 24 and in Washington 36, both judged "good" on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scale.

"These numbers are truly dangerous for everyone and are at the highest ranking in the EPA system," wrote Richard Saint Cyr, a doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital who posts the U.S. embassy figures on his public health blog. Heart attack rates leap when smog is thick and, "as for children, these air pollution spikes definitely can damage their still-developing lungs," he said. Saint Cyr advised parents to put face masks on their children when pollution reached dangerous levels, such as 200 or 250.

The figure goes off the charts from time to time. On the evening of Oct. 9, the numbers passed 500 -- "beyond index." When it hit that level last November, the embassy Twitter feed made global headlines by calling the air quality "crazy bad."

China's government opened its environmental-monitoring center to seven visitors for the first time today, hoping the gesture would quell criticisms of its efforts. Du Shaozhong, deputy head of the Beijing environmental protection bureau, was previously cited in the Communist Party-owned Global Times as saying Saint Cyr's warnings don't reflect the real conditions in Beijing. An unnamed Beijing doctor told the paper that Beijingers should not be subject to American standards.

The Chinese and Americans are in fact using different measures, which is one source of conflict. Beijing's pollution monitors particles 10 micrometers in diameter or smaller. The embassy's rooftop monitor, made by Met One Instruments Inc. of Grants Pass, Oregon, measures pollutants smaller than 2.5 micrometers. The finer particles can reach deeper into the lungs and are more dangerous to human health, according to the World Health Organization.

Met One Instruments senses an opportunity, and, with an office in Shanghai, is prepared. Jo Ann Pottberg, director of global sales and marketing, said in an e-mail that she's optimistic that China will adopt the standard measured at the embassy with the company's BAM 1020 FEM 2.5 monitor. Once the authorities require systems with similar specs, "they will have a better handle on the pollution monitoring in their area," Pottberg said.

-- Michael Forsythe

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