Put up with this air pollution? You've got to be choking
I've almost completed the checklist for my Beijing journey. From Beijing duck, and a palace walk to Beijing's food street, I've finally arrived at the "Beijing cough" _ the one thing on the list that no one wants to tick.
The Chinese capital city's official air quality monitors reported that the density of fine particles of PM2.5 went up to 900mg/m3 last Saturday. The 900 level was dubbed as "crazily bad". The safe daily level is only 25mg/m3, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The air turned soupy and Beijing was smothered in a dense smog. Some citizens even mockingly said that the air pollution rendered a romantic scene _ "I can surely feel you, but cannot see you."
Poor visibility recently prompted the cancellation of some flights and even induced car accidents. The number of patients admitted to the ER of Peking University People's Hospital doubled after Friday when the air pollution started peaking, according to a Bloomberg news report. Little children have caught colds and fevers _ even Wei Wei (not the artist), the vibrant, healthy daughter of my Chinese friend.
I confined myself to my apartment last week, and wore a mask when I went out. The mask is a new model that can counter against PM2.5 airborne particulate matter. PM2.5 are very tiny particles finer than 25 microns _ about 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. These particles came from emissions caused by fossil-fuel burning and are very effective in infiltrating human tissue _ in the lungs to cause cancer or cardiovascular problems, and can get into blood tissue or even into the brain via the nasal passages.
There are contributing factors: emissions from heavy industry, the rising number of cars and the burning of coal to supply the city's central heating network. Worse, in some suburban areas, or even in vintage courtyard homes in central Beijing, people still burn coal for heat.
The government tries to solve the problem. This week, 58 factories and more than 700 construction sites near the capital city were ordered to halt operation. Up to 30% of government vehicles were banned from roads, according to China Daily.
People know it will take a long time, a genuine effort and commitment from the government, and cooperation from the public to solve air pollution. In Beijing it is more than a health issue. Chinese people are highly aware of their rights and try to push officials to reveal real information.
Foreigners in Beijing have relied on air pollution reports on Twitter from the US Embassy in Beijing to get information. In 2008 the US Embassy installed air-monitoring equipment in its compound in the east of the city. The equipment measured PM2.5 particles. In contrast, Beijing's officials were monitoring larger particles _ PM10 _ and the results were always that the air quality was normal. Thus air-quality reports became a political squabble between the Chinese government and the embassy. However, in the middle of last year the authorities gave in to public demand to revise the official air monitoring index to PM2.5. That level is the latest standard that can catch the level of pollution. In Thailand, the Pollution Control Department (PCD) continues using the PM10 level to measure air quality.
Walking in smoggy Beijing in a mask with a runny nose, I miss Bangkok's blue skies, but still also wonder what exactly the quality of the air in Bangkok is.
The information boards provided by the PCD in front of Lumpini Park do not provide any data. Air quality in Mae Moh's coal-fired power plants in Lampang province, Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate in Rayong province and perhaps other industrial estates may not be much better than the Chinese air I currently inhale.
The difference is that Thai people do not get the chance to know real information as the state and the owners of factories manipulate data. For Thailand, the latest case is the finding by conservationists and researchers that samples of human hair and fish tissue around coal-fired power plants and pulp factories owned by Double A in Prachin Buri province contain a high dose of mercury, three to 11 times higher than the acceptable standard set by the Ministry of Public Health. I wonder what our authorities will do. Counter the big business?
As I write this column, the air quality has got better and I can see the pale blue sky. But I am worried with every breath I take and people are still wearing masks. What is more clear than Beijing's sky right now is the transparency of information, because the government decided to publish data and let state media report on air quality, without censorship.
With clearer and more reliable information, people such as my Chinese friend and her cute little daughter will have a chance to breathe fresh air and enjoy the real, breathtaking Beijing.
Anchalee Kongrut is a feature writer for Life, currently based in Beijing on the FK journalist exchange programme.
Assistant News Editor
Bangkok Post's Assistant News Editor