Beijing's Olympic Smog: How Bad Will It Be?

China's blue-sky blues aren't going away even with factory closings and restricted driving. The region's climate is part of the problem

A week before the start of the Olympics, Beijing's smog still threatens the Games. The effects of the polluted air are worrying to many Olympic athletes, some of whom have attempted to limit time spent in Beijing. National teams from the U.S., Britain, France, and Germany, to name just a few, have been doing their pre-Olympics training in Japan (, 2/12/08) rather than take their chances in China. Australia's Olympic Committee is giving athletes concerned about the smog's impact on their health the O.K. to withdraw from events. Record-holding Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie, who has asthma, has pulled out of the marathon, citing bad air.

Chinese officials knew they had to address the pollution problem (, 7/28/08) and promised Beijing would enjoy "blue sky days" for the duration of the Olympics. To do that, they have shut hundreds of factories and coal-burning plants in Beijing and its environs. They have implemented odd-even day driving restrictions for most Beijing residents, with those who do not obey the rules threatened with a $14 fine. And they have made businesses stagger their hours of operation in order to avoid rush-hour commutes that generate spikes in pollution.

These actions should help reduce what's known as the "urban heat island" effect, in which air warmed by activity in the city creates a heat bubble that traps pollutants. Still, after spending $16 billion to improve the city's air quality by shutting down factories and improving mass transit, taking half the city's 3.3 million cars off the roads each day, and planting 22 million trees, China's leaders must wonder what could be missing when they see gray days like July 31, when smog hung over the city.

Pollution from Near and Far

Climate scientists say the key ingredient is luck: Steps taken to reduce pollution might amount to little if the weather doesn't cooperate. Despite the measures the government has taken in the capital, southern winds threaten Beijing's efforts to clean up by bringing pollutants from hundreds of miles away. Limiting activity in the city won't be enough to have a major impact on air pollution before the games, because much of the problem comes from the densely populated, industrial regions southeast of Beijing, scientists say.

The huge changes in the pollution levels from day to day result from cyclical weather patterns, says Kenneth A. Rahn, professor emeritus of oceanography at the Center for Atmospheric Chemistry Studies at the University of Rhode Island. Cold fronts bring clean air from Mongolia, and warm fronts carry unhealthy air from the south. About half the pollution in Beijing comes from surrounding areas, and on the haziest days it can be as much as 70%, according to Rahn.

The region's dry climate exacerbates the problem, because without rain, pollutants have more time to accumulate in the air as it travels to the city. "I don't think the Chinese fully understand this regional element, and I know they didn't understand the importance of these cycles," Rahn says. Scientists at Tsinghua University in Beijing have been observing these patterns for three years but have had limited success communicating their findings to the government. "Officials aren't knocking on their doors," says Rahn.

Dictators Take More Aggressive Measures

Beijing isn't the first smoggy city to host the Games. The strategies adopted by the Chinese to improve air quality are similar to those used in Los Angeles in 1984. Organizers there were able to have oil refineries, which accounted for much of the city's pollution, suspend production; meanwhile, fear of unprecedented traffic congestion kept many drivers off the roads.

The only way for the Chinese to reduce pollution drastically might be to order all cars off the road and shut down industry in nearby cities, says environmental consultant Timothy Ball, who chairs a Canadian nonprofit advisory committee on climate change.

That's not easy, of course, but he is confident that if any country can enact such aggressive measures, China can. "They're doing things that no one else will be able to get away with," says Ball. "It's much better to have dictators to do this."

Indeed, Beijing officials on Aug. 1 unveiled a more Draconian pollution back-up plan. If forecasters predict lousy air quality in the coming days, 100-plus more factories would be shut down. And the city would take even more vehicles off the roads. Regions surrounding Beijing would also be required to reduce traffic and close down major polluters; the neighboring city of Tianjin would shutter 56 coal-burning power plants and other factories.

Some Olympics organizers have attempted to reassure athletes about China's smog. In March the International Olympic Committee's top medical official, Anne Ljungqvist, told reporters that pollution in Beijing would pose no threat to athletes' health, though she did admit that it could affect performance times.

Ozone Dangers

Plenty of medical experts disagree. Researchers at Ohio State University Medical Center recently released the first study to directly link air pollution to high blood pressure, and that was after exposure to Manhattan-like levels of airborne pollutants; the air in Beijing is typically three to four times worse. "Even people with no health problems can have trouble breathing when air quality gets that bad," says Dr. Jonathan Parsons, associate director of Ohio State's asthma center. Parsons says athletes likely will be coughing, experiencing shortness of breath, and feeling fatigued. And there is not much they can do to protect themselves if their events are held outside. Athletes competing indoors are less at risk because air-conditioning systems typically filter the air.

More exercise means bringing more air into your lungs, and if that air contains pollutants such as ozone gas, your performance and health will be affected. "Ozone is an oxidant, and it burns the cells in the lung. In the deep part of the lung, cells are more vulnerable to ozone because they're not protected by mucus like the cells in shallower parts," says Patrick Kinney, associate professor of public health at Columbia University Medical Center. Ozone is one of several air pollutants in Beijing, and Kinney, who has studied the effects of increased ozone levels on people who exercise vigorously, says it can induce asthma attacks. It may also cause lasting problems if exposure continues.

Athletes aren't the only ones at risk. Spectators may also be hurt by breathing dirty air, say Dr. Gokhan Mutlu and Dr. Scott Budinger at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. They published research last year showing that pollution can trigger heart attacks and strokes in at-risk people by making the blood thicker.

Still, pessimistic prognoses about Beijing might be exaggerated. China's officials are doing all the right things, says Steven Hayward, an environmental policy expert from the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "They just need to get a little lucky with the weather," he says.

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