At Least We Don’t Live in Beijing

I’ve only been to Beijing 5 or 10 times and the last time was at least 5 years ago.  Aside from the many wonderful things there – food, history, culture, people – I was also struck by how horrible the air pollution was.  Beijing’s pollution was famously cleaned up in time for the Olympics but apparently that was just a short term fix.

From the NY Times today:

One Friday more than two years ago, an air-quality monitoring device atop the United States Embassy in Beijing recorded data so horrifying that someone in the embassy called the level of pollution “Crazy Bad” in an infamous Twitter post. That day the Air Quality Index, which uses standards set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, had crept above 500, which was supposed to be the top of the scale.

So what phrase is appropriate to describe Saturday’s jaw-dropping reading of 755 at 8 p.m., when all of Beijing looked like an airport smokers’ lounge? Though an embassy spokesman said he did not immediately have comparative data, Beijing residents who follow the Twitter feed said the Saturday numbers appeared to be the highest recorded since the embassy began its monitoring system in 2008.

The embassy’s @BeijingAir Twitter feed said the level of toxicity in the air was “Beyond Index,” the terminology for levels above 500; the “Crazy Bad” label was used just once, in November 2010, before it was quickly deleted by the embassy from the Twitter feed. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, levels between 301 and 500 are “Hazardous,” meaning people should avoid all outdoor activity. The World Health Organization has standards that judge a score above 500 to be more than 20 times the level of particulate matter in the air deemed safe.

The municipal government reported levels as high as 500 on Saturday evening from some monitoring stations. The Chinese system does not report numbers beyond 500. Nevertheless, readings in central Beijing throughout the day were at the extreme end of what is considered hazardous according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency standards. (By comparison, the air quality index in New York City, using the same standard, was 19 at 6 a.m. on Saturday.)

Still, there was little warning that the United States Embassy reading would jump above 700 on Saturday. Some people speculated that the monitoring system, which measures fine particles called PM 2.5 because they are 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller, might have malfunctioned once it got beyond 500.

But Nolan Barkhouse, an embassy spokesman, said the monitor was operating correctly.

I was thinking that since these readings come from the U.S. Embassy, China would counter that it wasn’t so, that it was just the U.S. trying to make China look bad again.  But as the article says, “local” measurements were off the scale as well.