Category Archives: public health

More on Beijing Pollution

Today, a continuous stream of reactions to the air pollution that blankets much of Beijing and the surrounding provinces- first, from Evan Osnos:

Air-quality monitors at the U.S. Embassy spat out hourly Twitter readings of “hazardous”—levels that have never been measured in the U.S., even during forest fires. And on Sunday night, the needle hit its limit—500—a point beyond which it could render only the muted plea, “beyond index.” (As Beijingers recall, a programmer on the night shift initially set it to report ultra-high readings as “crazy bad” before diplomats intervened.)

Through it all, the Beijing environmental bureau described the air as “light pollution.” Or, poetically, “fog.”

It is an old issue that returns each winter as the cities’ furnaces roar back into use to deliver central heating, and temperature inversions settle over the North. But more than ever this year, Chinese citizens have taken note of the absurdity. Online, people are debating the best model numbers of 3M masks to buy, and pooling orders for air purifiers. (“Sometimes, I suspect that what we’re breathing isn’t air, but politics,” one person wrote.)

Year by year, it is getting harder to drum up the fog, even though an article in the Global Times quoted the city’s air-pollution chief, Yu Jianhua, in a tour de force of myth-making: “If you compare the air quality on an annual basis, it is actually improving.”

Next, from Tom Lasseter:

The distance between the official line on Beijing’s bad air and a reality that’s as obvious as the sky above is proving to be a challenge for the Chinese government. As with several other high-profile cases this year, the Internet in China, though constrained by censorship, has made traditional propaganda approaches more difficult.

When public opinion amplified by online forums swells to levels that call for “guidance” by the Communist Party of China, officials are caught between contradicting earlier statements or continuing to insist on explanations that sometimes border on the nonsensical. Missteps in either direction run the risk of being criticized at an online speed that outstrips the censors’ ability to delete.

State media said that the country’s largest online retail site, akin to eBay, sold more than 30,000 cotton and respiratory masks on Sunday alone, with more than 20,000 of them going to customers in Beijing.

Using software that allows them to circumvent online censorship programs, some users have posted the embassy numbers on Sina Weibo.

One Sina user said Tuesday, echoing a common frustration on the site: “No one believes in the government, people now choose to take the index from the embassy. How pathetic.”

Finally, James Fallows has more, including pictures showing just how bad it is, and notes that even Chinese media sources are finding it impossible to deny:

Global Times (think Fox News for Chinese nationalists) shockingly uses the word “smog” in a headline on Dec 6, instead of the conventional “mist,” “fog,” or “bad weather.” The story points out that 200 flights had been cancelled in Beijing as of mid-day because of the air quality.

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“Holding Our Breath”

Getting on Twitter today I was immediately struck by dozens of posts by Beijingers, who have endured astonishing levels of air pollution recently. Apparently it’s gotten so bad that the uncensored air quality feed provided by the American Embassy can no longer detect it- it’s off the charts. Absurdity, Allegory and China has a great post about this:

I have my curtains drawn and my office door shut and an IQAir filter cranking away. But that’s still not enough to keep the filth of Beijing air out. Periodically I look out the window, but then quickly draw the curtains again. I just don’t want to look at what is happening outside. It’s disgusting. This past Friday it snowed, perhaps the most depressing snow I’ve ever seen. I thought, “If there were enough of it, would you let your child play in that?” I remember those early life moments of scooping up a handful of snow, eating it, rolling in it, coming home frozen wet and red. That wouldn’t happen in this place. @bokane expressed it best: “Signs you’ve been in Beijing too long: you look out the window onto a snowy morning and just assume that it’s ash of some kind.”

On November 22 I went to the Terminal 3 of the Beijing Capital Airport to meet a friend who was to stay with us for a week. At 11:00 AM when she arrived the air was ‘Very Unhealthy.’ According to the air quality readings tweeted nearly every hour by the U.S. Embassy – much to the chagrin and protests of the Chinese government – the PM2.5 reading was 273. (PM2.5 is the invisible particulate matter that works its way into your lungs and does the most damage, a standard international measurement that the Chinese have, though they refuse to make their readings public. As we left the airport I told her that the smog would probably clear over the next few hours since the wind was predicted to rise. And rise it did, taking all the nastiness south that day. By 15:00 it was a ‘Good’ 39 and the wind was ripping.

The days between then and now have not been all that different: a few ‘Good’ and ‘Moderate’ periods, though mostly ‘Unhealthy’ and above. The exception has been the period we are in at the moment. As I write the PM 2.5 readings have been pegged in the ‘Hazardous’ zone since yesterday (Sunday) afternoon, 12-04-2011; 16:00; PM2.5; 406.0; 438; Hazardous, more than 19 hours ago. A few hours after the air quality entered the ‘Hazardous’ zone it reached the unmeasurable range (what some have unofficially deemed “Crazy Bad”) @ 12-04-2011; 19:00; PM2.5; 522.0; 500; Beyond Index , which is somewhat akin to WWI trench warfare air. How far ‘Beyond Index’ was it? There’s no way of knowing that, though if the CN.gov folks do, they aren’t about to tell anyone. In fact I’m surprised they haven’t sniped the measurement machine on top of the U.S. Embassy, yet. They hate it.

But this isn’t about us, China. This is about the Chinese. The majority of people who are affected by this insane level of pollution are your parents and grandparents. But it will all catch up to you later.

My city is bad enough, I can’t imagine living in Beijing.

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“Heavy metals pollute a tenth of China’s farmland”

Via Reuters, some news that shouldn’t much surprise anyone:

About one tenth of China’s farmland is polluted by lead, zinc and other heavy metals to “striking” levels exceeding official limits, a government expert said according to reports on Monday.

Wan Bentai, the chief engineer for China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, said a survey of soil pollutants this year found heavy metal from smelter chimneys, water run-off and tailings meant “in total about 10 percent of farmland has striking problems of heavy metal levels exceeding (government) limits,” the Southern Metropolitan Daily reported.

The Chinese government estimates the country has 1.22 million square kilometers of farmland, and says protecting that land is a priority. But many rural areas support smelters and foundries that spill pollution into soil and water supplies.

China’s environment ministry has called for urgent measures to tackle heavy metal poisoning. But Beijing has often failed to match vows to tackle polluters with the resources and will to enforce such demands, and local officials often put growth, revenue and jobs ahead of environmental standards.

And why would Beijing actually try to tackle this one? They’re eating safe food delivered from organic farms, this isn’t really even an issue for them.

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“Think China’s air is breathable? Think again”

I know the air in my city isn’t that great, but every time I get on twitter and see posts from people in Beijing I’m filled with joy from not having to live there. From The Globe and Mail:

Living in the Chinese capital, there are days – like today – when you can quite literally taste the air. Not in that pleasant, catch-a-snowflake-on-your tongue way that Canadians know. It’s a sensation closer to licking warm metal.

So when the World Health Organization released its list of the cities with the best and worst air pollution, I was surprised not to see Beijing near the top of the list.

Then I looked a little closer at the methodology. In most countries the WHO relied on its own data. But for all cities in China, the number of reporting stations is listed as “N/A” for not applicable. All data was provided by the China’s own National Bureau of Statistics.

Anyone who lives in Beijing knows that the government here lies to its citizens every day about the quality of the air. (That may sound harsh, but I write as the father of a 19-month-old asthmatic.)

Today, the United States Embassy, which has a monitoring station on its grounds in east Beijing, broadcast via its Twitter account that the air quality was “hazardous” between the hours of 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. today, with an air quality index of 344 on the scale of 1 to 500. (Or at least 500 – a level 25 times higher than WHO guidelines – used to be considered the top of the scale. The rating in Beijing surged to an unheard-of 562 one coal-tinged morning last November, prompting the embassy staffer who writes @BeijingAir to famously declare the air “crazy bad.”)

But China doesn’t acknowledge these numbers, or indeed the idea that the air quality here could be hazardous for anyone. The state-run Global Times newspaper said air pollution was only “moderate” Tuesday in Beijing. Unlike the U.S. Embassy Twitter account, it gave no measurements of ozone or PM2.5 particulate matter to back its assertion.

A 2009 U.S. Embassy cable made public by Wikileaks suggests that the Chinese government – rather than worrying about what the U.S. Embassy air quality monitors were discovering – was instead nervous that the data being made available on @BeijingAir might cause public anger.

Indeed, the information the Embassy’s assertions that the air usually wobbled between “unhealthy,” “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” were being seized upon by anxious Chinese Internet users and even some domestic media outlets as proof that air pollution was far worse than their government was telling them.

Next time you hear someone complaining about the American EPA, please refer them to the difficulties of breathing the air in China.

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“In China, what you eat tells who you are”

Remember the story about Greenpeace China testing in supermarkets and finding enormous problems with tainted vegetables? The Chicago Tribune has the other side of the story:

At a glance, it is clear this is no run-of-the-mill farm: A 6-foot spiked fence hems the meticulously planted vegetables and security guards control a cantilevered gate that glides open only to select cars.

“It is for officials only. They produce organic vegetables, peppers, onions, beans, cauliflowers, but they don’t sell to the public,” said Li Xiuqin, 68, a lifelong Shunyi village resident who lives directly across the street from the farm but has never been inside. “Ordinary people can’t go in there.”

Until May, a sign inside the gate identified the property as the Beijing Customs Administration Vegetable Base and Country Club. The placard was removed after a Chinese reporter sneaked inside and published a story about the farm producing organic food so clean the cucumbers could be eaten directly from the vine.

Elsewhere in the world, this might be something to boast about. Not in China. Organic gardening here is a hush-hush affair in which the cleanest, safest products are largely channeled to the rich and politically connected.

Many of the nation’s best food companies don’t promote or advertise. They don’t want the public to know that their limited supply is sent to Communist Party officials, dining halls reserved for top athletes, foreign diplomats, and others in the elite classes.

“The officials don’t really care what the common people eat because they and their family are getting a special supply of food,” said Gao Zhiyong, who worked for a state-run food company and wrote a book on the subject.

In the western foothills, the exclusive Jushan farm first developed to supply Mao’s private kitchen still operates under the auspices of the state-run Capital Agribusiness Group, providing food for national meetings. A state-owned company, the Beijing 2nd Commercial Bureau, says on its website that it “supplies national banquets and meetings, which have become the cradle of safe food in Beijing.”

The State Council, China’s highest administrative body, has its own supplier of delicacies, down to salted duck eggs.

“We have supplied them for almost 20 years,” said a spokesman at the offices of Weishanhu Lotus Foods, in Shandong province. “Our product cannot be bought in an ordinary supermarket as our volume of production is very little.”

When people ask if the government will clean up the food supply… well, why would they? They’re getting safe food already, and no one is in a position to hold them accountable. It’s like asking if the government will move against corruption. It’s their bread and butter, what could possibly drive them to move against it?

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‘Greenpeace China conducts nationwide pesticide test on supermarket veggies”

A few weeks ago China buzzed with news about KFC apparently reusing cooking oil and using powdered soy milk instead of fresh. The state media was happy to jump on this as proof that foreign companies occasionally do bad things, too, and used it to distract the public from the stream of over-the-top food safety problems that have cropped up here. The newspapers were trying to sell powdered vs fresh as being on the same level as the melamine and industrial chemicals in milk problems that China has had, which strikes me as insane but I guess that’s the point of being a propaganda outlet. Anyway, Chinese Greenpeace tested produce in a number of Chinese cities and stores, and as Shanghaiist reports, the results don’t look good:

Tesco
16 vegetable and fruit samples were taken from Tescos in Beijing and Guangzhou. Among them, 11 were found containing pesticide residues. Six samples contained pesticides that the EU classifiers suspect to be hormone disruptors. Six samples contained pesticides that EU classifies as possibly harmful to unborn babies.
A spinach sample contained pesticide procymidone level 2.99 mg/kg, which exceeds the EU MRL of 0.02 mg/kg by 149 times. The pesticide itself is no longer allowed to be used in EU as it has been classified as a suspected hormone disruptor.
One leafy vegetable sample turned up two kinds of pesticides, methamidophos and monocrotophos, the use of which have been prohibited in China since the beginning of year 2007.
Out of four rice samples taken, one contained 0.02 mg/kg of isoprothiolane pesticide residue, which is above the EU MRL standard. In the EU this product would not be allowed to be sold.

Lotus
We sampled 12 fruit and vegetable samples from stores in Shanghai and Wuhan. Nine samples contained pesticide residues. Seven samples contained pesticides that the EU classifiers suspect to be hormone disruptors. Five contained pesticide residues that EU classifiers suspect may harm unborn babies.
A Chinese leek sample and an eggplant sample contained the pesticide methamidophos, the use of which has been banned since 2007. The pesticide was also found on a rice sample at low levels.

Lianhua, with affiliate stores Hualian and Century Mart
We sampled 22 fruit and vegetable samples from supermarkets in Shanghai, Wuhan and Hangzhou. 15 samples were found to contain pesticide residues. 11 samples contained pesticides that the EU classifiers suspect to be hormone disruptors. Eight contained pesticides the EU classifiers suspect may harm unborn babies.
A Chinese leek sample contained pesticide residue procymidone levels of 1.05 mg/kg. This exceeds the Chinese MRL standard of 0.02 mg/kg. The pesticide residue carbendazim levels of 3.21 mg/kg also exceed the Chinese MRL standard of 2mg/kg. These two pesticides are both categorized by the EU as hormone disruptors. Procymidone is not allowed to be used in the EU.
A leafy vegetable contained the pesticide methamidophos, the use of which has been banned since year 2007.

But you see Nike tried selling a shoe that only had one sole as opposed to the advertised two, so widespread chronically tainted foodstuffs isn’t really a problem.

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“Corruption may undo China’s economic miracle”

From Victor Shih, a great FT blog post about exactly how bribery figures into construction projects great and small here:

According to details released by the Chinese media, the Jing’an government invited bids for a project to insulate a teachers’ dormitory. Not surprisingly, a company wholly owned by the Jing’an District Government, the Jing’an Construction Company, “won” the bid, but then gave the Rmb30m project to its wholly owned subsidiary Jiayi Company, which had little experience in this kind of project.

After paying government officials bribes to obtain this contract, Jiayi proceeded to farm out various aspects of this project to sub-contractors who paid Jiayi management the highest bribes.

In some cases, the work was further sub-contracted to foremen, who also had to pay sub-contractors bribes. At every level, guanxi and the amount of bribes determined who received the contract, not quality, safety or track record. In the end, a welder, hired precisely because he was inexperienced and therefore cheap, accidentally dropped his torch, which set off the fire.

Given the dominance of the state at every level of government, government officials learned long ago that the best way to make some money on the side was to form their own companies, which “bid for” and often won lucrative contracts from the government and from state-owned enterprises.

In many cases, these parasitic companies do not do the contracted work themselves but instead farm out the work to the highest bidders. The owners of these connected companies, often officials themselves or their close friends and relatives, can make money without doing anything. It is rent-seeking in its most naked form.

As this “unspoken rule” way of business proliferates to every corner of the Chinese economy, quality, safety, and basic trust all go out the window, replaced by the subcontractors who could pay the highest bribes.

Although a small number of people are enriched by the system, the vast majority suffers from its consequences. This corrupt system of subcontracting may be partially responsible for the high-speed train crash last month; it is also responsible for the prevalence of radioactive material in China’s homes, as noted by an earlier piece on beyondbrics.

It likely is partially culprit to the thousands of industrial accidents and food and product safety issues that crop up in China every year.

Nothing a little transparency and rule of law wouldn’t (at least) partially clear up, but the Communist Party seems convinced that those are bourgeois imperialist concepts designed to destroy China, so they’ll continue to stalwartly oppose them for now.

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