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Severe Beijing smog -- or fog? -- leads to long airport delays

December 6, 2011 |  9:26 am

Beijing

REPORTING FROM BEIJING -- Whether it was fog or smog, thousands of travelers have been delayed since Sunday evening by the almost opaque air around Beijing Capital Airport.

The delays at one of the busiest airports in the world raise questions about whether air pollution in China has gotten bad enough to derail the country’s economic growth. Hundreds of flights were canceled and even the highway to the airport had to be closed.

Chinese authorities insisted that the murk was fog, purely a weather phenomenon, conceding only that there was “light pollution.” However, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which has its own air monitor on the roof, reported Sunday night that the index of fine particulate matter had soared to 522 micrograms per cubic meter, which is off the charts. (A reading between 300 and 500 is considered hazardous.)

Beijingers bought more than 20,000 face masks on Taobao, a shopping website; and people took to the Internet to mock their own government’s reporting of air quality.

“They are treating citizens as idiots," complained a young man on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblog. A middle-aged man wrote sarcastically, “The city looks like a fairyland but thanks to the government, it is only ‘slight pollution.’ ”

After improving briefly, the air quality worsened again late Tuesday and hundreds more flights were canceled or delayed.

“At least I would feel better if I were compensated in some ways,” said a technology executive, who gave his name as Lao Mo, sitting on an airport bench Tuesday contemplating at least a six-hour delay for a business trip to Xian. "I don’t want to make a judgment about whether what they are saying about ‘fog’ is actually true."

The Chinese government says that air quality is improving in Beijing and that 80% of the days meet its own standards of “blue sky days," meaning air that is at least acceptable.

Steven Q. Andrews, an environmental consultant who has been monitoring Beijing air-quality reports since the 2008 Summer Olympics, released a new report Monday accusing Chinese authorities of seriously understating the severity of the city’s pollution by failing to monitor all pollutants and moving monitors out of congested areas.

"In a recent study of over 500 cities around the world, the WHO [World Health Organization] found that urban areas in Mongolia, Madagascar, Kuwait and Mexico had the highest [fine particulate matter], but the pollution levels measured were only about half as severe as Beijing," Andrews wrote.

Unlike the American Embassy, Beijing’s Environment Protection Bureau does not track particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, which experts say could penetrate lungs and other organs.

In recent weeks, Chinese have been clamoring for the government to adopt an international standard in reporting air pollution. Even the state-controlled media have heaped scorn on environmental protection authorities.

“Suffocating smog has been covering Beijing like a greasy quilt recently," the China Daily editorialized recently. “All of the residents in the city are aware of the poor air quality, so it does not make sense to conceal it for fear of criticism.”

On Friday, the Environmental Protection Bureau formally rejected a Beijing resident’s petition to publish data on fine particulate matter, declaring it was not a criterion specified in the 1996 government guidelines for air quality.

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-- Barbara Demick and John Lee

Photo: Poor air conditions prevail as midafternoon traffic clogs the Third Ring Road in Beijing. Credit: Adrian Bradshaw / European Pressphoto Agency

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