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By: David Pope
As Beijing’s air continues to grow darker and more polluted, the region’s Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau regularly reports a clean outlook based on its official interpretation of the data. While China does acknowledge that it doesn’t measure “fine” particulates below 2.5 micrometers in diameter (the size that is generally believed to pose some of the greatest health risks to human lungs and organs), the country’s official measurements seem to be in direct conflict with the U.S. Embassy’s data and probably even that of an intuitive second grader standing in the streets of Beijing.
Atop the U.S. Embassy in Beijing sits an air quality measurement device that sends instant, hourly updates to a Twitter account, @BeijingAir, which, at the time of this writing, has nearly eleven thousand followers. The measurements are given a qualitative health-concern description based on U.S. standards that can be found on the U.S. EPA’s Air Quality Index (AQI) website.
According to a CNN report on the issue, the Chinese state-run media typically refers to high pollution days as being “foggy.” The same article reported the Beijing Meteorological Bureau as issuing numerous dense fog alerts in early November.
The issue at hand, is that based on the interpretation of the data China collects there is generally only “slight pollution” in the Beijing air. This level should not cause concern for the health of Beijing’s 19.6 million residents, nor prompt the need to wear facemasks that could filter out fine particulate matter before it can be inhaled into the body. The U.S. embassy’s measurements drastically differ from China’s positive outlook, with numerous recent reports documenting air levels at the “beyond index” level (500+ micrograms per cubic meter), which according to the LA Times is seven times the US standard for “acceptable” air quality. It’s given the “beyond” rating, because it’s literally beyond the chart that was developed to measure air quality – the EPA probably didn’t predict that we’d ever need to measure that high. According to Dan Westerdahl, an air quality expert from Cornell University, “You couldn’t get such a high level in the United States unless you were downwind from a forest fire.”
The LA Times reported that articles released through WikiLeaks have revealed that the Chinese government has requested that the United States stop posting its own air quality data to Twitter, which is reported to be regularly reposted to China’s own Twitter system, Weibo. Twitter, and other social media platforms such as Facebook, remain blocked throughout the country by the Chinese government (WSJ).
In the era of social media, it is becoming harder for Chinese officials to avoid transparency to its citizens and the rest of the world. When will China start recognizing and disclosing the massive health impacts being experienced by the Chinese people? Avoiding the truth will only last for so long.