“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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Filed under censorship, pollution, public health

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