Choking on Smog

Photo from BusinessWeek.

In a Pulitzer grab, The New York Times is now running a series of two-page spreads called Choking on Growth about the dark under side – namely environmental contamination – of China’s economic development. Below are several paragraphs from the article, As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes, describing how increased motorization in China has left a cloud of haze sitting on Chinese cities causing a whole host of health complications.

Expanding car ownership, heavy traffic and low-grade gasoline have made autos the leading source of air pollution in major Chinese cities. Only 1 percent of China’s urban population of 560 million now breathes air considered safe by the European Union, according to a World Bank study of Chinese pollution published this year. One major pollutant contributing to China’s bad air is particulate matter, which includes concentrations of fine dust, soot and aerosol particles less than 10 microns in diameter (known as PM 10).

The level of such particulates is measured in micrograms per cubic meter of air. The European Union stipulates that any reading above 40 micrograms is unsafe. The United States allows 50. In 2006, Beijing’s average PM 10 level was 141, according to the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics. Only Cairo, among world capitals, had worse air quality as measured by particulates, according to the World Bank.

Emissions of sulfur dioxide from coal and fuel oil, which can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as acid rain, are increasing even faster than China’s economic growth. In 2005, China became the leading source of sulfur dioxide pollution globally, the State Environmental Protection Administration, or SEPA, reported last year.

Other major air pollutants, including ozone, an important component of smog, and smaller particulate matter, called PM 2.5, emitted when gasoline is burned, are not widely monitored in China. Medical experts in China and in the West have argued that PM 2.5 causes more chronic diseases of the lung and heart than the more widely watched PM 10.

Recently, in preparation for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China temporarilly banned cars from Beijing’s streets, hoping to improve air quality so that athletes don’t choke on smog when they begin competing in the city next year. Such Draconian measurements may clean the air temporarily, but surely they’re not enough to keep air quality at healthy levels over the long term.

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