No one who has visited Beijing recently will be surprised to learn that pollution in the capital has been so bad that the air quality monitoring system used by the U.S. Embassy here has described the pollution as being off the scale.
It’s little wonder that a city official has reportedly just described the air quality as having reached “crisis level.”
On the morning of December 5, I thought it was snowing when I first looked out my window. The smog was so dense that I couldn’t even see the restaurant that’s only about 50 meters from my house.
I checked the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau’s reading. Data from the bureau for between 8 pm on December 4 and 8 am the next morning showed the pollution reading was 150 to 170, which equates to Level 3 on the bureau’s rating system. Level 3 is designated as “slight pollution” that will cause “some irritation amongst healthy people.”
So I checked with other media sources, and found that most were instead using air monitoring data from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. The data was shocking.
The index used by the U.S. Embassy measures particles under 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) compared with the between 2.5 and 10 micrometers used in China’s official readings. According to the U.S. index, at 7 pm on December 4, the concentration of fine particles in Beijing was 552. The maximum value on their scale is 500, meaning Beijing’s air quality was so poor that it was described as “beyond index.”
The city’s deteriorating air quality (this was the second time in about a month that Beijing’s pollution levels had exceeded the U.S. index) has prompted considerable frustration among many Chinese, and pressure is growing to include the PM2.5 data as the U.S. Embassy does.
Disappointingly, the bureau is resisting such pressure, despite the fact that informing the public would allow people to be more aware of the health risks and take necessary precautions. Following a series of days of heavy smog, a growing number of people have been buying masks and air purifiers. A friend who works at an electrical store told me that sales of air purifiers had recently jumped 200 percent on the usual number for this time of year.
The Environment Ministry is clearly aware of the problem, and says it has been seeking the public’s view on whether to include the finer particles in its readings. Unsurprisingly, a worried public does indeed appear to want the PM2.5 measure to be included in the standard air quality monitoring system.
Still, don’t expect a change anytime soon – the ministry says that it is listening, but that it needs time to discuss and evaluate the issue.