Beijing Air Tops Hazardous Levels Days Before Congress

Beijing’s air pollution climbed to hazardous levels days before the national legislature opens its annual meeting, drawing new attention to environmental degradation that the government has promised to address.

Concentrations of PM2.5, fine particles that pose the greatest health risk, rose to 469 micrograms per cubic meter at 10 a.m. near Tiananmen Square, compared with an average of 275 in the previous 24 hours, the Beijing government reported. The World Health Organization recommends 24-hour exposure to PM2.5 of no higher than 25. The level dropped to 47 at 4:00 p.m.

China’s polluted water, air and soil have sparked criticism online and in state media of the government’s management of the environment after PM2.5 levels in Beijing surged to a record of 993 on Jan. 12. The country opens its annual National People’s Congress on March 5 to discuss policies including this year’s growth target, and officials including Li Keqiang, set to become premier, have asked for patience as they address pollution.

“I would expect some of the delegates to raise this issue during the NPC meeting,” Ma Jun, a Beijing-based environmentalist and founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said in a phone interview. “This issue has aroused extensive public concern. Before it was in certain specific cases. Now it’s about the air people breathe and the water they drink, which affect hundreds of millions of people.”

State Secret

Calls for a cleaner environment have spread as delegates prepare to meet at the Great Hall of the People next week. Newspapers this month protested the Environment Ministry’s refusal to release soil pollution data to lawyers. The ministry said the information was a state secret.

The 21st Century Business Herald newspaper said on its website the government should release the data, comparing the issue to the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, in 2003, which had initially been kept a secret.

Exposure to PM2.5 contributed to 8,572 premature deaths in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an in 2012, according to estimates by Greenpeace and Peking University’s School of Public Health. Coal burning is the main source of pollution, accounting for 19 percent, while vehicle emissions contribute 6 percent, according to the report.

Real-Time Data

China started to release real-time data on PM2.5 in 74 cities in January. The country had previously only released data on larger particles known as PM10.

The disclosure of the air pollution data was a positive step and the country now needs to institute mandatory disclosure for polluters, Ma said. China’s local governments still put economic growth above protecting the environment, and publishing data would expose them to public scrutiny, he said.

Disclosing PM2.5 levels “has forced the local governments to recognize the issue and to give the truth, rather than try to always distort the data,” he said. “Now we need to move that to the polluting source side.”