Monday, January 28, 2013

Pollution in Beijing: Seeing is Believing... and Difficult

Jim Sciutto is an American diplomat in China. He was formerly ABC News' Senior Foreign correspondent, based in London and the author of Against Us: The New Face of America's Enemies in the Muslim World.

And according to some of his recent tweets, he's starting to worry about his children... and their lungs.

The couple of photographs of Beijing that he's posted make the point.  That's air one could grab hold of -- that's frightening air.

Beijing am on Twitpic
"Beijing am"

Beijing sunrise on Twitpic
"Beijing sunrise"

Spot the skyscraper on Twitpic
"Spot the skyscraper"

Morning commute on Twitpic
"Morning Commute"

Beijing sunrise - aahh on Twitpic
And yet, seven days ago:  "Beijing sunrise - aahh"

Sciutto also peppers his tweets with reposts from @BeijingAir.  BeijingAir lists, at roughly hourly intervals, "[f]ormat for each: pollutant type; concentration; AQI; definition" -- which ends up looking like this, the results of measurements made just 15 minutes ago:

01-29-2013 10:00; PM2.5; 462.0; 475; Hazardous (at 24-hour exposure at this level)

PM2.5 refers to:
Particle pollution (also known as "particulate matter") in the air includes a mixture of solids and liquid droplets. Some particles are emitted directly; others are formed in the atmosphere when other pollutants react. Particles come in a wide range of sizes. Those less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) are so small that they can get into the lungs, potentially causing serious health problems. Ten micrometers is smaller than the width of a single human hair. 
*Fine particles (PM2.5). Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter are called "fine" particles. These particles are so small they can be detected only with an electron microscope. Sources of fine particles include all types of combustion, including motor vehicles, power plants, residential wood burning, forest fires, agricultural burning, and some industrial processes. 
*Coarse dust particles. Particles between 2.5 and 10 micrometers in diameter are referred to as "coarse." Sources of coarse particles include crushing or grinding operations, and dust stirred up by vehicles traveling on roads.

475; Hazardous refers to the AQI and its definition, as delineated in this explanation and chart: 

The AQI is an index for reporting daily air quality. It tells you how clean or polluted your air is, and what associated health effects might be a concern for you. The AQI focuses on health effects you may experience within a few hours or days after breathing polluted air. EPA calculates the AQI for five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. For each of these pollutants, EPA has established national air quality standards to protect public health .Ground-level ozone and airborne particles are the two pollutants that pose the greatest threat to human health in this country. 

How Does the AQI Work?
Think of the AQI as a yardstick that runs from 0 to 500. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern. For example, an AQI value of 50 represents good air quality with little potential to affect public health, while an AQI value over 300 represents hazardous air quality. 
An AQI value of 100 generally corresponds to the national air quality standard for the pollutant, which is the level EPA has set to protect public health. AQI values below 100 are generally thought of as satisfactory. When AQI values are above 100, air quality is considered to be unhealthy-at first for certain sensitive groups of people, then for everyone as AQI values get higher. 
Understanding the AQI
The purpose of the AQI is to help you understand what local air quality means to your health. To make it easier to understand, the AQI is divided into six categories:

Air Quality Index
(AQI) Values
Levels of Health ConcernColors
When the AQI is in this range:..air quality conditions symbolized by this color:
101-150Unhealthy for Sensitive GroupsOrange
151 to 200UnhealthyRed
201 to 300Very UnhealthyPurple
301 to 500HazardousMaroon

Each category corresponds to a different level of health concern. The six levels of health concern and what they mean are:

  • "Good" AQI is 0 - 50. Air quality is considered satisfactory, and air pollution poses little or no risk.
  • "Moderate" AQI is 51 - 100. Air quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people. For example, people who are unusually sensitive to ozone may experience respiratory symptoms.
  • "Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups" AQI is 101 - 150. Although general public is not likely to be affected at this AQI range, people with lung disease, older adults and children are at a greater risk from exposure to ozone, whereas persons with heart and lung disease, older adults and children are at greater risk from the presence of particles in the air. . 
  • "Unhealthy" AQI is 151 - 200. Everyone may begin to experience some adverse health effects, and members of the sensitive groups may experience more serious effects. .
  • "Very Unhealthy" AQI is 201 - 300. This would trigger a health alert signifying that everyone may experience more serious health effects.
  • "Hazardous" AQI greater than 300. This would trigger a health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.

Truly frightening?  If you scan the readings @BeijingAir, there are a fair number of AQI readings that are above 500, which is designated as "Beyond Index." 

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