Mar 14, 2011 05:49 PM

Death From Above: Air Quality Readings


A "Visual Diary of Blue Sky Days in Beijing," shot by Beijing resident Lu Weiwei and her photographer friend Fan Tao, recently received many plaudits from film critics. Beginning in June 2009, the two took a photo of the Beijing sky each day for a full year. In 2009, the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau announced that 285 days had reached the standard for what the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) calls "blue sky days." But Lu counts only 180 blue-sky days in her photos.

Coincidentally, Nanjing's State of the Environment report showed that the city reached 315 "blue sky days" the same year. But data from the MEP website show that Nanjing had been shrouded in haze for a total of 211 days.

The conflict in "blue sky days" data from these two cities reflects the contradiction between current air quality standards and what the public sees in the air. The "blue sky days" standard to which environmental protection bureaus point refers to days in which air quality is at or above Level II, that is, "good" or better. But in reality, haze may be present even on "blue sky days," and ozone and other pollutants may exceed healthy limits.

Those in the industry generally say that China's air quality standards, which have been in effect for more than ten years, do not truly reflect air quality.

On March 1, the MEP published a second draft of "Technical Requirements for Environmental Air Quality Index (AQI) Daily Reporting" on its website.

Caixin interviewed numerous experts who said that it's already a foregone conclusion that the requirements will be passed. This means that a facelift for China's air quality standards is imminent.

A Step Backwards

Prior to the 2008 Olympics, Beijing expended great effort to control ground-level ozone pollution. But MEP monitoring data shows that in 2009, ground-level ozone at monitoring sites in Changping and Dongsi exceeded standards on 53 and 49 days, respectively.

In the past two years, environmental protection bureaus in many cities have declared increases in their own numbers of "blue sky days," but the requirements state that haze has occurred frequently in areas in which cities are concentrated and is on an increasing trend. Particle concentration on hazy days is increasing, of which the increase in fine particulate matter is even greater.

According to monitoring results for haze pilots in 2009, Tianjin experienced 51 days of haze; Shenzhen, 115 days; Chongqing, 133 days; Shanghai, 134 days; Suzhou, 169 days; and Nanjing 211 days.

However, current routine air quality monitoring projects only measure particles of 10 micrometers or less in aerodynamic diameter (PM10), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). Indicators like ozone and fine particulate matter (PM2.5, or particles of 2.5 micrometers in diameter and less) are not included. PM10 particles can settle in the lungs and cause respiratory problems, while PM2.5 particles can penetrate into the gas-exchange sections of the lungs and be absorbed into the bloodstream, causing issues seemingly unrelated to respiration. In the United States, Canada and Europe, these indicators have long been included in mandatory monitoring standards.

China's current air quality standards took effect in 2000, more than a decade ago, and both industry insiders and the public at large are critical of the system.

According to the version of the requirements currently undergoing comments, carbon monoxide and ozone will be incorporated into routine monitoring programs and become parameters for calculating AQI. In Beijing, for example, assuming air quality itself remains unchanged, ozone concentrations may pull down air quality readings, which would look like a step backward for the number of "blue sky days" in the city.

Wei Fusheng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Engineering and China Environmental Monitoring Center, told Caixin that monitoring ozone can determine the possibility of urban producing photochemical smog pollution. Monitoring carbon monoxide concentrations, besides reflecting air quality, "can also provide information on the efficiency of our energy use." The main source of carbon monoxide in the atmosphere is the incomplete combustion of coal and fuel oil.

Regrettable Standards

Public Environmental Research Center Director Ma Jun says the most regrettable thing about the soon-to-be adopted requirements is that there are no mandatory requirements for PM2.5. "They don't fill the biggest hole in the air quality monitoring system," Ma said.

"In cases of severe haze, some schools still continue to organize outdoor activities like winter long-distance runs. If the relevant indicators were published, the public would be warned, and this situation could be avoided," he added.

Technically, mandatory implementation of PM2.5 monitoring is not a problem. The China National Environmental Monitoring Center announced in 2007 that it had accumulated some experience in carrying out haze monitoring pilots Tianjin, Shanghai, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Shenzhen, as well as areas in Guangdong and Jiangsu provinces. Moreover, there are already suppliers of PM2.5 monitoring equipment in China, although most are foreign producers.

One unavoidable fact is that a mandate to monitor PM2.5 would put significant pressure on city governments. The same industry insider said, "According to estimates, after monitoring ozone, the rate of good days will drop 15 percent or so. If fine particles were monitored, the rate of good days would fall another 20 to 30 percent. So the overall rate of good days would drop by somewhere around 40 percent, which would be a big challenge for local governments everywhere."

Ma says he understands the difficulties of the environmental bureaus. With fine particulate matter pollution in such a serious situation, bringing it down in the short term would be very difficult, and would not happen over night.

"But I don't agree with the statement that conditions for monitoring and release (of this data) are not right," Ma said. "Indeed, many cities have reached the current air quality standards. If standards are made higher, they could return to an unhealthy state. But this isn't to say that the public won't be affected if there is no monitoring and no announcement. Confronting the problem is the first step toward solving it."

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