CITY EDITION, MAY 1-14, 1998

Breathing in Beijing

How bad is it?


When Beijing residents opened their newspapers on the morning of February 28, they were surprised to see a tightly guarded state secret staring out from the pages: a pollution index for nine area of the city.

That pollution has reached worrisome levels in the Chinese capital came as no surprise to local residents, who need only look out their windows to see how bad the situation is.

“When I was small girl, you could see the Western Hills on any day,” recalls Judy Wang, a 29-year-old businesswoman. “Now, even major high-rise buildings in the center of Beijing often disappear in the haze, and you can only see the mountains a few days a month, on very windy days when the pollution is blown away from the city.”

What was surprising, however, was that the secrecy that had long shrouded the extent of air pollution in the city was beginning to fade. Western diplomats say that it is not just the man on the street who has been ignorant about pollution in China. Even senior officials have been kept in the dark, they say, making it difficult in the past for the central government to take measures to combat the problem.

The central government passed a law in 1989 requiring environmental reports by all levels of the Chinese government, but this was largely ignored until May 1997, when 27 cities began making weekly air-pollution reports. Beijing was the last major city to comply with the regulation, beginning to release data only in February this year.

The reason, say central government officials, was that local governments were fearful the bad news would damage the reputations of their cities, discourage foreign investment, and possibly even result in popular discontent.

Sanlian Life Weekly quoted an official in Shanghai as saying “the disadvantages would outweigh the advantages,” that few people would read the reports, and that those who did “might cause some social unrest.”

“They might say, “The government did a bad job. Why did you give us such bad air?”

A Beijing official told the magazine that the release of the figures was “linked to social stability.” He said the two of the three seriously polluted rivers in Beijing, known as “The Three Roundworms,” had been cleaned up, but that the third was was polluted it could not be improved any time soon. “If we were to tell the people, “This river is seriously polluted, but we can’t do anything about it, wouldn't’t that be encouraging civil disorders?”

Qu Geping, chairman of the Environmental and Natural Resources Committee of the National People’s Congress and the former head of the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) lashed out publicly at these local officials, calling their arguments “just excuses.”

“The real reason,” Qu told local reporters, “is that the quality of the environment is all messed up and some don’t want to tell the Chinese people that this is so.” Qu argued that the publication of information about the environment would help people to take the initiative and get more involved in environmental protection. “Treating the Chinese people like ‘opponents in a guerrilla war’ is no way to build trust in the government,” he said. “If there are achievements, we want to tell the people about them; but if there are difficulties we need to explain to the people about them.”

According to a report by the U.S. Embassy, NEPA officials confided that the publication of the air-pollution levels was part of a “deliberate strategy” by the agency, which has had its hands tied, to put public pressure on polluters and local governments to clean up their act and enforce regulations.

How bad is it?

While Beijing’s air quality has not reached the level of Benxi, Liaoning Province, which disappeared from satellite maps several years ago (it only recently began to poke its head out again from this cover of pollution), the situation is obviously bad.

The China Energy Development Report, published last year, put the level of total suspended particles, or TSPs(in simple terms, soot and dust), in northern Chinese cities at an average 392 micrograms per cubic meter, significantly above the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended limit of 60 to 90 micrograms. American cities have readings in the 40 to 60 range, with New York measuring 62. A 1995 WHO study put Beijing, Shenyang, Xi’an, Shanghai, and Guangzhou among the 10 cities in the world with the worst TSP pollution.

Qu, in an interview with the Science and Technology Daily in December, said that the average annual concentration of carbon monoxide rises by 16 percent annually, and NOx by 52 percent each year. For the year 1996, the average values for the concentrations of suspended particles, sulfur dioxide, and NOx all exceeded WHO and Chinese air-quality standards. Former Energy Minister Huang Yicheng in February put the sulfur dioxide level in Beijing air at 100 micrograms per cubic meter, or five times the WHO maximum safe level.

The average amount of dust falling per square kilometer in Beijing (only 7 percent of this originates outside the city) climbed from 18.7 million tons in 1991 to 20 million tons in 1995, three times the maximum standard set by the WHO.

Coal is a leading cause for the worsening environment. Coal meets 70 percent of Beijing’s energy needs, but only 5 percent of this is clean coal. The remainder has an ash content of 20-25 percent and a sulfur content of 1 percent. According to an expert with the Beijing Environmental Bureau, coal combustion is responsible for 90 percent of Beijing’s sulfur dioxide emissions and more than half of its particulate emissions.  Making matters worse, coal consumption, which now stands at 28 million tons annually, is increasing.

Women and children, who spend more time at home in closed rooms where coal briquettes are being used on home stoves and for heating in the winter, are being hit especially hard by indoor pollution. The health risk from the use of indoor fuel is said to be comparable to that posed by smoking.

Sixteen people were killed and more than 1,000 hospitalized in the nearby city of Tianjin between March 29 and April 2, due to carbon monoxide poisoning. The problem was attributed to recent aberrantly warm spring temperatures and atmospheric pressure change that prevented smoke from home stoves from being forced outside through chimneys.

And then there is the problem of motor vehicles, which have quintupled to 1.12 million over the past decade as more and more Beijing citizens trade in their bicycles and walking shoes for automobiles. New motor vehicles are taking to Beijing streets at an annual increase of 15 percent, meaning the number of vehicles will double in just five years. Vehicles emissions are already approaching toxic levels in some cities.

China’s vehicles are highly polluting, due to outdated designs and poor emission standards for new vehicles. Compared to U>S. made cars, Chinese cars pour out 30 to 60 times as much carbon monoxide, 40 to 60 times as many hydrocarbons, and eight to 15 times as many nitrogen oxides.

The quality of surface water in urban areas, especially in the northern regions which are facing shortages, is poor. About half of the monitored urban river sections in northern China do not meet the lowest ambient standards, and only about 8 percent of monitored urban river sections in the region meet the standards for direct human contact.

Other factors cited by NEPA as causes of worsening pollution are a tripling of industrial development, a 28 percent expansion of the Beijing municipality, construction going on simultaneously at 4,000 building sites, and a floating population of 3 million surplus workers, who have flooded into the city from poor, inland provinces. 

A joint report by Chinese scientists and the World Bank in late 1997 ranked Beijing, along with Jinan and Chongqing, as having the most unhealthful air pollution levels in China, and one-fifth more polluted than the heavily industrialized city of Shenyang, based on health damage caused by pollution. As almost all the gasoline in China is leaded (Beijing switched to unleaded last June) and the bulk of the coal used is not “washed,” urban residents are inhaling a daily barrage of dangerous and deadly poisons.

According to research by foreign and Chinese experts, air pollution is taking a heavy toll on the health of the citizens of China, with one out of four people dying from lung disease, caused by air pollution or the increasingly popular habit of smoking. Lung cancers have shot up 18.5 percent since 1988.

The World Bank says that three major health risks have been associated with the domestic use of polluting fuels: acute respiratory infection, a leading killer of children under the age of five, chronic lung diseases such as bronchitis, emphysema, asthma, and cancer. The coal used on home stoves is said to be the main cause of lung cancer in rural areas, where woman are disproportionately affected, and the third leading cause in cities. Pollution is cited as one reason chronic obstructive pulmonary disease-emphysema and chronic bronchitis—has become the leading cause of death in China, with a mortality rate five times that of the United States.

The World Bank provides some sobering statistics:


  • An estimated 178,000 people in major cities suffer premature deaths each year because of pollution.
  • Indoor air pollution, primarily from burning coal and biomass for cooking and heating, causes 111,000 premature deaths a year, primarily in rural areas.
  • Children in Shanghai, Shenyang, and other major cities have blood-lead levels averaging 80 percent higher than levels considered dangerous to mental development. This has been associated with the rise in the use of automobiles. Studies of children in Beijing, where some 70 percent of school children are said to suffer from some form of lead poisoning, have “consistently found a link between lead exposure and deficits in intelligence, neurobehavioral development and physical growth,” according to a World Bank report titled Clear Water, Blue Skies.
  • Hospital admissions due to respiratory illnesses are 346,000 higher in urban areas because of excess pollution, which causes 6.8 million emergency room visits each year. Each year, some 7.4 million work years are lost to health damage resulting from pollution.  


A study at Fuxing Hospital, a community-based hospital in Beijing, showed increases in outpatient visits in association with increases in the amounts of sulfur dioxide and TSP in the air. The authors of the report said that there was “coherent evidence” that current air pollution levels in Beijing are associated with decreased pulmonary function, respiratory symptoms, increased numbers of hospital visits and increased mortality.

Researchers from several leading U.S. medical schools working with doctors at the Beijing Women’s Health Care Institute have also found an association between air pollution and low birth weights in Beijing. The research was carried out among pregnant women living in four residential areas of Beijing, following them from early pregnancy to delivery. During this period, daily air pollution data were also collected.

The team found a “significant exposure-response relationship” between maternal exposures to sulfur dioxide and TSP during the third trimester of pregnancy and infant birth weight. The estimated reduction in birth weight was 7.3 g and 6.9 g for a set increase in sulfur dioxide and TSP levels respectively.

The World Bank says that reducing pollution to WHO guideline levels would slash premature deaths by 10,000, chronic bronchitis cases by 81,000, and respiratory symptoms among the seven million inhabitants of Beijing’s urban district by 270 million symptoms a year.

Newspapers have been running series after series of articles about the problem of pollution. An article appearing in the China Youth Daily in March said that the poor quality of air was one reason Chinese scholars studying abroad were returning in fewer numbers, quoting several who had come back on visits as saying they found it difficult to readjust to the poor air quality.

A Beijing resident surnamed Li, who returned from New Zealand recently after seven years abroad, has gotten so sick since returning to the capital that he has had to curtail his work schedule. When asked if the heavy pollution that hangs over the city is to blame for his poor health, his wife answers, “Without a doubt.”

Progress is being made, however. Both the national and city governments have prioritized the environment. More and more Beijing residents are moving out of the hutongs and into high-rise buildings, where gas, electricity and central heating have replaced the use of solid fuels and coal stoves, and where kitchen ventilation has improved. And households that are still using coal are increasingly using cleaner and more efficient briquettes in specially designed stoves.

Huang, former Energy Minister, said, however, that while increased use of natural gas to replace coal will help to reduce pollution the annual capacity of the pipeline from northern Shaanxi province to Beijing could meet only 10 percent of the capital’s demand. Huang has urged Beijing to ban the use of high-sulfur coal.

Chinese environmental experts have called on Beijing to move more factories out of the city, to shift from ash coal to clean coal and natural gas, to increase the amount of greenery in the city, and to limit the number of new automobiles taking to the capital’s roads.

Chinese officials say public support will also play a critical role. The new openness about China’s environmental problem is forging an environmental consciousness among Chinese, which is strengthening the hand of environmental authorities who are working for stricter policies and adherence to regulations.

As Qu Geping said earlier this year, protection of the environment is the job of everyone in society, and not something the government can do on its own. “Every single victory in environmental protection in China has come about because of the broad support of the Chinese people,” said Ge. “The degree of popular participation in environmental protection work is an important indicator of the success or failure of environmental protection.”

Beijing’s Best and Worst

According to foreign diplomat, Beijing monitors the most heavily polluted parts of the city. It monitors three types of pollutants: sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrous oxides, as well as total suspended particles, and reports whichever substance shows the highest concentration on the day of monitoring. The city also publishes an overall air-quality rating going from I for excellent air to V for serious pollution.

Between late February and early April, about half of the eight districts being monitored showed readings of IV, or “medium pollution.” The most heavily polluted districts were Chegongzhuang, in the western part of the city; Qianmen, in south-central Beijing; Dongsi, in the heart of the city—the district of the Palace Hotel and the Foreign Ministry; and Shijingshan, to the west, home to much heavy industry. Qianmen generally had the highest particle counts, registering 228 in nitrous oxides on February 26, 227 on March 5, 223 in TSP on March 19, and showing a 255 TSP on April 2. Chegongzhuang, home to the New Century complex and the Xiyuan Hotel, vied for first place on the polluted list with Dongsi, showing nitrous oxides of 233 on February 26, a TSP of 220 on March 19, and a 282 TSP on April 2. TSP was very high in late March, averaging 258 for the week of March 27 to April 2. The following week, overall TSP dropped to 189.

Of the districts being monitored, the one with the consistently mildest readings was Dingling, to the northeast of the city, near the Ming Tombs. Dingling showed a 71 TSP on March 5, and only 36 on March 26. The TSP high for Dingling was 97.

According to the US.S. Center for Disease Control, a 0-50 index in the United States is considered moderate to good, with no general health effects. Readings of 100-200 are unhealthful, with mild aggravation of symptoms in susceptible aggravation of symptoms in susceptible aggravation of symptoms in susceptible persons and irritation symptoms in the health population. At this level in the United States, people with existing heart or respiratory ailments are advised to reduce physical exertion and outdoor activity. Levels of 200-300 are “very unhealthful,” with “significant aggravation” and decreased tolerance in persons with heart or lung disease, with widespread symptoms in the healthy population. People with lung diseases or health problems are advised to stay inside tend to reduce physical activity. Levels of 300-400 lead to premature onset of certain diseases in addition to significant aggravation and decreased tolerance in persons with heart or lung disease. Levels of 400-500 are hazardous, with premature death of the ill and elderly.

This Month Beijing reported in April that it is safest to exercise outdoors between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., because cooler temperatures make pollutants fall closer to the ground, so people will breathe easier in the warmer hours of broad daylight.

Local real estate agents say that, so far, the published figures don’t seem to have affected real estate values. The air in midtown, however, has undoubtedly driven families into the bedroom communities, where developers have built complexes of what Chinese call “villas”” planned developments of detached or semi-detached houses. “A lot of the people going to villas tend to be families,” says Jonathan Hannam, general manager of First Pacific Davies in Beijing, “and they say the reason they’re going to the villas is because the air is better. Anyone who lives in a villa will tell you that when they drive in as far as the Lido, there’s a brown smudgy line. It’s really bad.”

Considering the seriousness of the problem, the situation is unlikely to improve dramatically in the short term, despite the best efforts of the government. As one Western diplomat said, “You can’t clean up a problem like this in just one or two years.”

The Beijing Youth Daily reported in the April that there is nowhere to run from the problem of pollution, but for those Beijing residents who can afford it, a weekend out of the city brings welcome, if only temporary, relief.

“When I go to Huairou on the weekends, my lungs start to feel better within just a day or two,” says Yu Qi, a magazine editor. “As soon as I get out of the city, I really feel I can breath easier.”


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney