Air Pollution Worsens After Controls Kick In

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 26, 2008

BEIJING, July 25 -- Beijing's air pollution index rose steadily this week at the same time the city has tried to cut traffic volume in half. Readings Thursday and Friday were over 100 and considered unhealthy for children, seniors and those with allergies or asthma.

The climb from a reading of 55 on Sunday to 110 on Friday -- despite six days of forcing Beijing motorists to drive on alternate days -- underscored the formidable challenge authorities face in trying to clear the air before athletes begin competing in the Aug. 8-24 Olympic Games.

Already, one marathon world-record holder has refused to compete in Beijing because of health and pollution concerns, and International Olympic Committee officials have said endurance events might have to be postponed because of the city's unrelenting smog.

"For the first four days since July 20th, they were good days. For the last two days, they were not," said Du Shaozhong, deputy general director of the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau.

"In the last few days there have not been significant rainfalls or winds," Du said. "And the weather conditions in the last few days were not conducive to the diffusion of airborne pollutants."

While uncontrollable factors such as the weather have worked against the city, many problems are entirely man-made. The largest contributing factor to Beijing's air pollution is vehicle emissions, Du has said in the past. Thanks to growing public demand and friendly government policies toward car manufacturers, Beijing adds more than 1,000 cars to its streets every day.

Despite the new figures, Du argued that the capital's air quality was actually better compared with the same period last year because the concentrations of major pollutants -- such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide -- were reportedly down 20 percent.

Beijing does not make public data on two of the most dangerous pollutants that can harm the respiratory system -- ozone and fine particulate matter. The latter has been found to enter the bloodstream and cause heart attacks and strokes in sensitive individuals.

In a last-minute push to help clear the skies, the government imposed a series of Olympic-related restrictions that kicked in Sunday.

In addition to mandating alternate-day driving based on odd and even license plate numbers -- which is supposed to remove 45 percent of the city's 3.3 million cars from the streets -- Beijing opened Olympic traffic lanes, stopped all but essential truck traffic, staggered work hours, added 2,000 buses, beefed up subway service and halted all construction work involving earth, stone and concrete.

Since Sunday, the city's air pollution index readings have been 55, 65, 67, 89, 113 and 110. Last Aug. 8, a year before next month's opening ceremony, Beijing's air pollution index was 88.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company