Air quality concerns have been paramount as athletes begin to arrive in Beijing for the summer Olympic Games. These fears are far from unfounded: The European Space Agency (using satellite imagery) has found that Beijing and its surrounding areas have the world's highest concentration of nitrogen dioxide, a substance poisonous to the lungs.
[Haile Gebrselassie | http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haile_Gebrselassie], the marathon (26.22 miles/42.19 km) world record-holder, voluntarily withdrew his position in the marathon event at the Beijing Olympics due to serious concerns about his own health. As an asthma sufferer, he feared that his health and career were in jeopardy if he competed in such poor conditions. He does, however, plan to compete in the shorter 10,000-meter event.
The good news is that Chinese officials have a very extensive (and expensive!) plan in place, and it appears to be improving the air quality in Beijing. The controversial plan includes halting all construction projects, severely limiting traffic within city limits, and in some cases, shutting down factories known for their pollution.
The image above shows a comparison of Beijings air quality with that of Los Angeles and New York City. An average day in Los Angeles is just barely better than the best day in Beijing in the month of May. As shown, a very rare bad day in New York City might rate as high as 65, whereas, Beijing averaged 137 on the SEPA index during the month of May (2008). It is important to note the concern regarding the potential manipulation and loose standards of Chinas data standards.
The Wall Street Journal recently released a Beijing Air Quality Widget, allowing visitors to see this real-time air quality details (or see their detailed air quality widget). From the historical data, you can see that Beijing averaged an API index of 137 during May, which decreased significantly to just 77 during the month of July.
Beijing residents have noted better visibility and brief periods of blue skies in recent weeks, so one can deduce that Chinas efforts are working to some extent. Looking at historical data as well, it appears that Beijings efforts to curb air pollution are working, at least to some extent.
Lets hope our athletes can breathe easy in Beijing!