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Just How Bad Is the Air in Beijing?

Masked marathoners aside, a new paper suggests that as bad as Beijing's air quality may be, it has improved during the decade leading up to the Olympics.

As the build-up to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing continues, the city's poor air quality remains a subject of great concern to athletes, organizers and Chinese government officials. One British marathoner has even suggested she'll train in a gas mask if necessary.

Since the 1980s, the city has experienced rapid industrial development, urbanization and increased traffic. Pollution from coal-fired power plants and emissions from slow-moving gas guzzlers have combined to cast a dun-colored haze over Beijing and its sprawling suburbs.

But a new study by Chinese scientists, led by Wang Wen-Xing and his colleagues from the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences in Beijing, appearing online in the journal Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health, suggests that while Beijing has some way to go to meet national air-quality standards — steps the Chinese government seems willing to take — measures it has taken since 1998 have already made a difference.

The researchers measured concentrations of atmospheric pollutants continuously throughout August and September of last year, the same period during which the Olympic Games will be held this summer, and compared their findings against the National Ambient Air Quality Standard. The sampling instruments were installed on the roof of a 15-meter-high (49-foot) building fewer than six kilometers (3.38 miles) from the Olympic Games' stadiums and fewer than three kilometers from the Olympic Village, where the athletes are housed.

The scientists found that average daily concentrations of sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide were lower than China's National Ambient Air Quality Standard. Nitrogen dioxide levels met the standard, whereas the amount of ozone and inhalable particles were higher than the standard. There's also more pollution at night than during the day.

The researchers blame most of this pollution on auto emissions and the weather. In recent years, the number of vehicles on Beijing streets has increased at an astonishing 10 to 20 percent per year. Beijing is surrounded by mountains on all sides except the south, causing dry air and a lack of rain, and creating conditions that restrict the diffusion of pollutants.

The International Olympic Committee, while not exactly giving the city a clean bill of health, has cleared the city for the Games. Still, it recommends a "Plan B" for some events that require sustained exertion.

The Beijing government, mindful of the global attention on the city's pollution problem, has enacted a series of control measures that stretch back a decade and, according to the state-run news agency, have cost more than $17 billion. Cleaner fuels and low-sulfur coal are favored; construction activities are supervised by government regulators to cut down on dust; vegetation has been increased; diesel buses have been converted to compressed natural gas; and new emission standards for car exhaust have been implemented.

Despite these measures, which have had some impact, the study authors conclude: "Compared with some other Olympic cities abroad, such as Helsinki, Los Angeles, Barcelona and Sydney, Beijing's air quality needs to improve."

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