Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Olympian Heights of Air Pollution

As the pollution level reaches Code Orange here in Spin City on the Potomac, attention is shifting to the pervasive pollution of Beijing. With the Olympic opening ceremonies only 10 days away, reports indicate that attempts to reduce air pollution effects on the athletic competition are having limited effects.

In late June, Chinese officials announced plans to cut auto traffic in half with an odd-even driving schedule and to close polluting manufacturing plants. Despite these restrictions now being in effect, today's WSJ reports that pollution readings have exceeded government targets on 4 out of the last 8 days. The opening of the athletes' village on Sunday was marred by "pea-soup fog". Accompanying WSJ video notes that Beijing is not the only Chinese city contending with serious pollution problems.

If pollution levels remain high, more drastic measures may be implemented. Contingency plans call for reducing vehicle traffic by 90% and ordering further factory closings. China Daily reported yesterday that emergency measures, if required, would be announced with a 48-hour lead time.

Today's Morning Edition on NPR discussed the potential effects of pollution on athletes. Events which are most likely to be impacted are the outdoor endurance competitions, such as the triathlon, road cycling, mountain biking, race walking, and the swimming and running marathons.

Athletes are not the only ones at risk, however. Two researchers at Northwestern University's medical school have warned that breathing high levels of pollution can be very dangerous for spectators in certain risk groups. The effects can even extend into the plane ride home.

The latest Newsweek, out today, includes a column by science writer Sharon Begley analyzing the most controversial aspect of Beijing's attempts to control the Olympic atmosphere. In order to try to prevent rainfall from dampening the opening and closing ceremonies, a massive $100 million cloud seeding operation will be carried out by an army of 32,000 rainmakers. As Begley rightly notes, decades of experimentation with cloud seeding have failed to provide objective evidence that the technique is effective. The current official statement on weather modification by the American Meteorological Society, adopted in 1998, indicates that evidence of artificial rainfall enhancement is inconclusive at best.

The current Ministry of Environmental Protection pollution index reading of 90 for Beijing is slightly below the level of 100 considered serious by the government. The weather forecast for Wednesday calls for cloudy skies, light winds, and a temperature range of 23-31 °C.

Image, from Getty Images via Wall Street Journal: Smog in Beijing's Central Business District on Monday.

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