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How smoggy was it?

June 19, 2009 |  4:36 pm

Before the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, athletes braced themselves for extreme air pollution levels they hoped wouldn't hamper their performance. In anticipation of the games, Chinese authorities instituted a number of measures to improve the air quality, including reducing the number of cars on the road, closing factories that contributed to the pollution and cutting back on construction. More factories in surrounding areas were also closed.

The results? Not so good.

K4qjtync Air samples were collected from atop the seven-story geology building of Peking University for two weeks before the Olympics, two weeks during the games and a month afterward. Researchers then analyzed the particulate matter. At the same time they collected meteorological data, including wind speed and direction, precipitation and temperature. Results from the analysis of the particulate matter were compared to air pollution data taken by the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau.

The researchers (from Oregon State University and Peking University) discovered that 81% of the time, levels of coarse particulate matter exceeded safe levels as determined by the World Health Organization. And a whopping 100% of the time they reached unacceptable levels for smaller particulate matter, considered more dangerous because it can be inhaled more easily into the lungs.

The levels were higher than what the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau released, because of differences in the methods of measurement. Levels exceeded an average day in Los Angeles by two to four times, and were also higher than pollution levels during previous Olympics in Athens; Atlanta; and Sydney, Australia.

Despite this, study coauthor Staci Simonich, associate professor of environmental and molecular toxicology at OSU, said that so far no evidence exists showing that athletes or spectators suffered any health problems because short-term exposure of the pollution. It's undoubtedly another story for the millions of Chinese who have to live with poor air quality day to day. However, researchers noted that last fall, particulate matter air pollution in Beijing was as much as 27% lower than a year earlier. That, they say, may in part be due to economic downturns and less industrial output. The study appears in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

-Jeannine Stein

Photo of Beijing from July 2008. Credit: Jean Chung / For The Times