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Posted on Sustainabilitank.info on January 13th, 2013
by Pincas Jawetz (pj@sustainabilitank.info)

Today’s New York Times, Science pages,  writes about an AIR POLLUTION INDEX (API) FIGURE FOR BEIJING HAVING REACHED 755. This is well beyond rational existence. The TV programs show Beijing engulfed in white smoke and no trace of the sun. This reminded me of an article I wrote in October 1997 after a visit to Malaysia and referenced in our PROMPTBOOK – An October 1997 article in the International Diplomatic Observer distributed at the UN (20 – this is the reference in he Promptbook), discussed the fact that about 20 new large hotels were being built in Kuala Lumpur while the Air Pollution Index was often above 200 (which in the New York Times is defined as very unhealthy) – the author predicted that these investments would turn sour as there would be no tourism under these conditions. The author’s observations were proven right with the collapse of the Kuala Lumpur stock market just six weeks later.” reference (20) Pincas Jawetz, “White Nights at Noon in South East Asia,” The International Diplomatic Observer at the UN in New York, October 1997, p.11

My argument was at the time that the World Bank gave out loans to build hotels in Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere in Malaysia, but air pollution is killing tourism, and thus those investments went sour causing economic crash. I refused to accept that the pollution was a result of fires from burning trees in Indonesia and I argued that it was pollution created in Malaysia proper. You cannot shoulder the blame on “outsiders.”

New York had at the time usually an API of 35-80 and when it reached 100 we complained. Now the API in New York is mostly bellow 30.
100-200 is considered unhealthy; 201-300 – Very Unhealthy  – and our scale ends at 500 with the 300-500 range termed hazardous. Martin Khor wrote in the Star of September 29, 1997 like a prophecy –  “How should we categorize an 850 API – Very Hazardous, Post Hazardous, Extreme Danger? Malaysia’s figures at the time were just 300, but Beijing is now pushing 800!

LET US SUGGEST HERE THAT NOT ONLY HEALTH IS AT STAKE – BUT ALSO THE ECONOMY – SOMETHING THAT THE ECONOMY CHIEFS UNDERSTAND BETTER THEN MERE HUMAN HEALTH FACTORS. LET ME ALSO SUGGEST TO THE NYT THAT THEY CAN SAFELY PROMOTE THE ARTICLE TO FRONT PAGE from its location on page 16 – Thus to the THE POLITICAL PAGES. WHEN IT COMES TO CHINA THIS IS NO LESS THEN THE FUTURE OF THE GLOBAL ECONOMY.

Alexander F. Yuan/Associated Press

Fashionably masked women on Saturday outside an amusement park in Beijing. The World Health Organization has standards that judge an air-quality score above 500 to be more than 20 times the level of particulate matter in the air deemed safe.

On Scale of 0 to 500, Beijing’s Air Quality Tops ‘Crazy Bad’ at 755

By

Published in the New York Times on-line: January 12, 2013

BEIJING — One Friday more than two years ago, an air-quality monitoring device atop the United States Embassy in Beijing recorded data so horrifying that someone in the embassy called the level of pollution “Crazy Bad” in an infamous Twitter post. That day the Air Quality Index, which uses standards set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, had crept above 500, which was supposed to be the top of the scale.

So what phrase is appropriate to describe Saturday’s jaw-dropping reading of 755 at 8 p.m., when all of Beijing looked like an airport smokers’ lounge? Though an embassy spokesman said he did not immediately have comparative data, Beijing residents who follow the Twitter feed said the Saturday numbers appeared to be the highest recorded since the embassy began its monitoring system in 2008.

The embassy’s @BeijingAir Twitter feed said the level of toxicity in the air was “Beyond Index,” the terminology for levels above 500; the “Crazy Bad” label was used just once, in November 2010, before it was quickly deleted by the embassy from the Twitter feed. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, levels between 301 and 500 are “Hazardous,” meaning people should avoid all outdoor activity. The World Health Organization has standards that judge a score above 500 to be more than 20 times the level of particulate matter in the air deemed safe.

In online conversations, Beijing residents tried to make sense of the latest readings.

“This is a historic record for Beijing,” Zhao Jing, a prominent Internet commentator who uses the pen name Michael Anti, wrote on Twitter. “I’ve closed the doors and windows; the air purifiers are all running automatically at full power.”

Other Beijing residents online described the air as “postapocalyptic,” “terrifying” and “beyond belief.”

The municipal government reported levels as high as 500 on Saturday evening from some monitoring stations. The Chinese system does not report numbers beyond 500. Nevertheless, readings in central Beijing throughout the day were at the extreme end of what is considered hazardous according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency standards. (By comparison, the air quality index in New York City, using the same standard, was 19 at 6 a.m. on Saturday.)

Pollution levels in Beijing had been creeping up for days, and readings were regularly surging above 300 by midweek. The interior of the gleaming Terminal 3 of the Beijing Capital International Airport was filled with a thick haze on Thursday. The next day, people working in office towers in downtown Beijing found it impossible to make out skyscrapers just a few blocks away. Some city residents scoured stores in search of masks and air filters.

Still, there was little warning that the United States Embassy reading would jump above 700 on Saturday. Some people speculated that the monitoring system, which measures fine particles called PM 2.5 because they are 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller, might have malfunctioned once it got beyond 500.

But Nolan Barkhouse, an embassy spokesman, said the monitor was operating correctly.

It was unclear exactly what was responsible for the rise in levels of particulate matter, beyond the factors that regularly sully the air here. Factories operating in neighboring Hebei Province ring this city of more than 20 million. The number of cars on Beijing’s streets has been multiplying at an astounding rate. And Beijing sits on a plain flanked by hills and escarpments that can trap pollution on days with little wind. Meanwhile, one person hiking at the Great Wall in the hills at Mutianyu, north of Beijing, took photographs of crisp blue skies there.

Xinhua, the state news agency, reported on Dec. 31 that Beijing’s air quality had improved for 14 years straight, and the level of major pollutants had decreased. A municipal government spokesman told Xinhua that the annual average concentration of PM 10, or particles 10 microns in diameter or smaller, had dropped by 4 percent in 2012, compared with one year earlier.

Chinese officials prefer to publicly release air pollution measurements that give only levels of PM 10, although foreign health and environmental experts say PM 2.5 can be deadlier and more important to track.

There has been a growing outcry among Chinese for municipal governments to release fuller air quality data, in part because of the United States Embassy Twitter feed. As a result, Beijing began announcing PM 2.5 numbers last January. Major Chinese cities have had the equipment to track those levels, but had refused for a long time to release the data.

The existence of the embassy’s machine and the @BeijingAir Twitter feed have been a diplomatic sore point for Chinese officials. In July 2009, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official, Wang Shu’ai, told American diplomats to halt the Twitter feed, saying that the data “is not only confusing but also insulting,” according to a State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks. Mr. Wang said the embassy’s data could lead to “social consequences.”

A version of this article appeared in print on January 13, 2013, on page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: On Scale of 0 to 500, Beijing’s Air Quality Tops ‘Crazy Bad’ at 755.
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