Saturday, June 13, 2015
Air Twice as Polluted as Beijing
For travelers to Beijing, especially in the late fall/winter, the haze that hovers above the city with people walking around wearing masks with little filters is a shock. From the effluents from nearby coal power plants and industrial facilities to the dust kicked up from the west, exacerbated by masses of cars, pollution pins the needle way, way past acceptable. The measurements (“PM2.5”) most folks use on air pollution measures the concentration, in micrograms per cubic meter, of small, dangerous pieces of particulates (those less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) that can seriously damage lungs. 100 is really bad but acceptable (at least in Beijing), most meters won’t go past 500, and Beijing occasionally doubles even that emission rate.
Some of these measurements are based on U.S. Embassy numbers since China has occasionally shied away from releasing the extreme numbers. But in fairness, many point to America’s Beijing, Los Angeles as our counterpart. “In the American Lung Assn.'s 2014 national State of the Air survey, the L.A.-Long Beach area ranked worst in terms of ozone concentrations and third worst in terms of particulates as measured by the standard known as PM2.5, which captures particles so small they can be seen only with an electron microscope.
“But if L.A. were in China, it would be cleaner than all 74 major cities tracked in 2013 by the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection, based on PM2.5 levels… According to U.S. standards, an average annual PM2.5 reading of 12.4 or below is considered ‘good.’ Downtown L.A.'s average annual reading for 2013 was 18, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
“Even the cleanest Chinese cities are dirtier. The cleanest in China's 2013 report, Haikou, had an average annual PM2.5 reading of about 26. The filthiest, Xingtai, had a reading six times higher. Beijing, the 13th dirtiest Chinese metropolis, had a value of 90.” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2014. In Beijing, people talk as much about the pollution as they do about almost any other topic. The city is otherwise stunning, filled with history, some of the most magnificent buildings, ancient and cutting-edge modern, on earth. But living there is… well… challenging.
Offices and homes of those that can afford it are often fitted with expensive filtration systems. During severe bouts of pollution, people still hack and cough, eyes watering, some even wearing full oxygen masks. Sounds horrible, and China has indeed prioritized a national clean-up campaign, but Beijing is a piker compared to the pollution rates in several urban centers in India, a nation where thousands recently died in one of the worst heat waves ever to face that country. “India, in fact, has 13 of the world’s 25 most polluted cities, while Lanzhou is the only Chinese city among theworst 50; Beijing ranks 79th.” Gardiner Harris writing for the New York Times, May 30th. India’s life expectancy has dropped 3.2 years on average directly traceable to pollution levels, but that’s across the entire country. The pockets of mega-pollution in some urban areas are much, much worse.
The largest Indian city with the worst pollution issues is New Delhi (what is it with national capitals?), but it not just the air that is twice as toxic as that of Beijing (noted by the World Health Organization). “Delhi’s true menace [comes] from its air, water, food and flies. These perils sicken, disable and kill millions in India annually, making for one of the worst public health disasters in the world. Delhi, we discovered, is quietly suffering from a dire pediatric respiratory crisis, with a recent study showing that nearly half of the city’s 4.4 million schoolchildren have irreversible lung damage from the poisonous air.” NY Times. Horrible right? And there is little in the way of major change on the horizon.
“‘Knowing that I was putting my kids in a place that compromised their health for their lifetimes would be very difficult given all of the scientific evidence,’ said W. James Gauderman, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California. He is the co-author of a landmark 2004 study showing that children raised in parts of Los Angeles — where pollution levels are a fraction of Delhi’s — face significant and probably permanent losses of lung function. Even children who move to less polluted places during childhood never seem to entirely recover from earlier high pollution exposures, another study found…
“Sarath Guttikunda, one of India’s top pollution researchers, who moved to Goa, on the west coast of India, to protect his two young children, was unequivocal: ‘If you have the option to live elsewhere, you should not raise children in Delhi.’… These and other experts told me that reduced lung capacity in adults is a highly accurate predictor of early death and disability — perhaps more than elevated blood pressure or cholesterol. So by permanently damaging their lungs in Delhi, our children may not live as long.
“And then there are nascent areas of research suggesting that pollution can lower children’s I.Q., hurt their test scores and increase the risks of autism, epilepsy, diabetes and even adult-onset diseases like multiple sclerosis…” NY Times. But wait, there’s more.
“It’s not just the air that inflicts harm. At least 600 million Indians, half the total population, defecate outdoors, and most of the effluent, even from toilets, is dumped untreated into rivers and streams… For much of the year, the Yamuna River would have almost no flow through Delhi if not for raw sewage. Add in the packs of stray dogs, monkeys and cattle even in urban areas, and fresh excretions are nearly ubiquitous. Insects alight on these excretions and then on people or their food, sickening them.” NY Times.
In the end, countries owe their children the best environment they can afford. The long term damage is unforgiveable, but in countries with extreme levels of poverty, like India, the ability to fix these issues anytime soon is just not happening. China has the resources and is using them to cut back this toxicity; India is way behind. These horribles are a reminder to us, here in the rich United States, that our air, water and earth are precious resources that we really have to manage responsibly. And while the examples in Beijing and Delhi are extreme, not treasuring what we have will have a lasting impact on those people who live in areas where toxicity is still a huge issue even for us.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the world really is a single ecosystem where massive detriments anywhere lend to toxicity everywhere.