China air pollution “beyond index”

BEIJING (AP) — In the first two months of 2013 Beijing’s air pollution has kept schoolchildren indoors and sent coughing residents to hospitals, but this time something is different about the murky haze: the government’s transparency in talking about it.

Even state-run media gave the smog remarkably critical and prominent play. “More suffocating than the haze is the weakness in response,” read the headline of a front-page commentary by the Communist Party-run China Youth Daily. Government officials — who have played down past periods of heavy smog — held news conferences and posted messages on microblogs discussing the pollution.

Air pollution is a major problem in China due to the country’s rapid pace of industrialization, reliance on coal power, explosive growth in vehicle ownership and disregard for environmental laws, with development often taking priority over health. The pollution typically gets worse in the winter because of an increase in coal burning.

Westerners new to the Beijing experience often complain of sore throats, chest congestion, coughing and burning eyes. Treatment at local over-the-counter medical clinics range from common antibiotics and decongestants to homeopathic remedies that often has little effect. Winter snowfall often turns gray within a few hours of being on the ground, an indication of coal-burning particulates and other air pollutants. Coughing and lung congestion is prevalent throughout Chinese cities, but pronounced in smog-choked Beijing. The Web is giving voice to the growing number of concerned citizens.

A growing Chinese middle class has become increasingly vocal about the quality of the environment, and the public demands for more air quality information were prompted in part by a Twitter feed from the U.S. Embassy that gave hourly PM2.5 readings from the building’s roof. The Chinese government now issues hourly air quality updates online for more than 70 cities.

According to the government monitoring, levels of PM2.5 particles were above 700 micrograms per cubic meter on Saturday, and declined by Monday to levels around 350 micrograms — but still way above the World Health Organization’s safety levels of 25. In separate monitoring by the U.S. Embassy, levels peaked Saturday at 886 micrograms — and the air quality was labeled as “beyond index.”

The Beijing Shijitan Hospital received 20 percent more patients than usual at its respiratory health department, most of them coughing and seeking treatment for bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory ailments, Dr. Huang Aiben said. PM2.5 are tiny particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in size, or about 1/30th the average width of a human hair. They can penetrate deep into the lungs, and measuring them is considered a more accurate reflection of air quality than other methods.

“Because these dust particles are relatively fine, they can be directly absorbed by the lung’s tiny air sacs,” Huang said. “The airway’s ability to block the fine dust is relatively weak, and so bacteria and viruses carried by the dust can directly enter the airway.” Prolonged exposure could result in tumors, he added.

Demand has spiked for facemasks, with a half dozen drugstores in Beijing reached by phone reporting they had sold out.

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