Just how bad is the air in Beijing?

The Beijing government thanks you

Beijing Air is a new blog that has set out to "bring together some information on the air quality in Beijing, mainly to answer the question: how wise is it to live in Beijing, if you have other options? Can you raise your kids in this city without affecting their chances of a healthy life?"

It's particularly timely, because the Beijing city government just concluded an experiment: from August 17 to 20, cars with even-numbered licensed plates could only be used on the 18th and 20th, with odd-numbered plates restricted to driving on the odd-numbered days.

The intention was to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion, and to give the city more information about how to ensure clear skies and smooth traffic during the Olympics next year. The city authorities declared the experiment a success: the image above shows a text message sent from the city government to mobile phone users in Beijing that says:

Citizen friends: the four day environment traffic experiment has been successfully completed. We wholeheartedly thank you for your contribution to improving the capital's air quality and preparation for the Olympics — Beijing Party Committee and Beijing Government

As the Beijing Air blog points out, "4 days of reduced traffic experiment in Beijing shows no improvement in air quality, although the authorities suggest it would have been worse without the restrictions, so they claim the experiment was successful nevertheless."

Well, how was the air quality during the four day experiment?

The data for Beijing's air quality below is from China's environmental protection agency SEPA, and shows the 'pollution index' or API which stands for airborne particulate index. Anything up to 100 is not a problem (according top SEPA), 101 to 200 is 'slightly' to 'lightly' polluted' and not a serious problem. When the API count exceeds 200, SEPA says that "The symptoms of the cardiac and lung disease patients aggravate remarkably, and the exercise endurance drop lower. The healthy crowds popularly appear some symptoms."


Looking at August 10 to 15 on the chart, the API numbers are all under 100. For some reason, the index shot up to 115 the day before the traffic experiments started, and returned to 116 on the 21st, the day after the experiment ended. So it does indeed seem that the reduction in the cars on the road helped to keep the pollution at acceptable levels during the experiment.

But if you look at the area highlighted in red on the graph above, you'll notice that there are no numbers given for Monday August 20.

Monday was in fact a bad air day in Beijing. Why are the numbers for that day missing?

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There are currently 14 Comments for Just how bad is the air in Beijing?.

Comments on Just how bad is the air in Beijing?

I created a graphic for this having heard the news from a friend that the trial had been 'successful'. At the time, the data from the 20th still wasn't around.

Indeed extremely strange the number for 20 August is missing; it seems missing for all cities except Shijiazhuang (with the magic number 88) and as far as i can see it is the first time this year this happens, maybe a nervous bureaucrat hitting the wrong key, or a 'lucky' accident.

According to the Chaoyang Environmental Protection Bureau, it was 95:


[converted to permalink. -JM]

But your reasoning is flawed. You say something to the effect of "hey look at the numbers right before and after the car ban...they are over 100...the numbers during the ban? They are under 100."

However, look at the 10th to 15th and they are significantly under 100. There was not a car ban why are those numbers so much better? Was there a fake rain at that time and how does this fake rain knock all the particles out of the air?

Also, I read being under 100 Beijing determined as being a "blue sky day"...thus a success. Nonetheless, is being under this magic number 100 really mean much? Does it mean that it was a clean air day compared to other major cities in the world?

From a previous article I read 100 really meant it was a "fairly acceptable" pollution situation (that sounds NOT acceptable at all---when is pollution acceptable?) however it never really meant it was a clear air day as a lot of your are suggesting.

it's difficult to appreciate what value if any to place on these numbers without context.

a quick search seems to suggest that the air quality index used by beijing is the same as or similar to that used by the EPA in the u.s.:


los angeles--which is frequently regarded as the u.s. city with the worst-quality air--has had a particulate matter count somewhere in the 60s over the past several days:


while ny--which is commonly cited by those who have never lived there (can you guess where i'm from?) as having poor quality air--reports a PM count in the 30s:


anyone else have any greater insight they'd like to share? please do.

You will note that the website you have links to is in English. Any questions as to the intention of the authorities in Beijing?

Also, were you not the person who chastised the WHO chief for raising fears about the air quality? Have you shifted your view suddenly?

Thanks for the additional info, b..

There was a lot of rain in the run-up to the 8th that was intended to generate good weather for the one-year celebrations, and it seemed to work for a week - that'd account for the low numbers at that end of the chart.

There was a short, informative article in a Beijing newspaper earlier this week that explained that "blue sky day" isn't a technical term - it's a catch-all designation for a day with low pollution, as measured from noon to noon. This explains why some overcast or rainy days are considered "blue sky days," and why other days on which you can see blue sky, like Tuesday, are not.

That day on August 20th, every weather balloon in Beijing was knocked down by UFOs which are believed to be some sort of egg or rock thrown by angry laowai who really hate clean air. Those laowai soon will be “harmonized” by 2008, and will be able to breathe shit in like the rest of Chinese and Keith Richard.

I see I am getting company in the blog world, see my entries (search for pollution). The situation is indeed pretty bad and after over 20 years here my lungs are seriously affected, mostly due to the PM10 (I run marathons, yes, stupid me). While I expect pollution not to be a problem during the Games, the health threat remains high and I don't see much hope in the near future. I made some detailed studies on pollution in Beijing and the conclusions are not pretty. I still believe API should be way under 50 but here 120 to 150 is "normal". Once we ran a marathon in Beijing with API of 500. The city acted as a criminal in not stopping the race.

SinaSource: We present a link to the English section of the site because that's the language of most of our readership.

You can find the Chinese language air quality figures here — they are the same as the English numbers although the interface makes it difficult to link to individual pages like you can do for the English section.

However, here's a chart in Chinese that has just one entry - Shijiazhuang - for the 20th, and you can generate the figures for Beijing on other days with the search tool at the bottom.

I don't think there's any question as to whether or not I have changed my mind: the good doctor's statements as they appeared the The Daily Telegraph article — "those with a history of heart problems and those suffering from asthma should be aware they could be harmed" just be visiting Beijing still strike me as exaggerated. That does not mean I think Beijing has perfect air.

Good work by your Chinese speaking staff and interns then in noting the link.

I still find it strange that you go from seeing the WHO admonishment as "exaggerated" and yet point to this other material as evidence that the authorities are not coming clean (so to say) about air quality.

Yeah it is a bit over exaggerated. I'm sure there are plenty of people who have these problems and are living in Beijing. Sure, it may not be the cleanest city in the world but it's a place to live. Is this just what we have to pay to be alive today?

Where I live everyone commute to work because there are just too many parking spaces (and spewing out pollution 24/7/365 (but we have lots of trees, mazes of twisted subdivisions, and pretty little lawns) but Danwei is about China). Lots of Beijingers also commute, perhaps for the same reasons, too many parking spaces. But Beijing is ideal for public transportation due to the fact that Beijing is very urban. If they plan it right and make some remarkable improvements to the current system, I don't see how the city's environment would not improve. But I guess I'm being an idealist here because there are many other factors involved. I love how I'm being an armchair city planner here...

Even more funny is I have not lived in Beijing longer than 2.5 month since 1990, so why am I even posting?

Last thing, we should not forget that the Olympics is just for a few weeks...

Qualifiers like 'excellent', 'good', 'moderate', etc, take on different meanings depending on where you are. For an example, take a look at the comparison between Hong Kong's and Beijing's air pollution indexes. HK's 'HIGH' = BJ's 'GOOD'

One difference is I believe EPA numbers.

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