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July 26th, 2008:

Air Getting Better, City Insists Amid Smog

Rising pollution belies assurances on Games

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing – SCMP – Updated on Jul 26, 2008

Beijing insists the steps it has taken to reduce air pollution are showing results, even though persistent smog still hovered over the Olympic host city yesterday.

A top environmental official said traffic restrictions, a construction ban and factory closures imposed on Sunday had cut air pollution by a fifth.

Still, Du Shaozhong admitted: “Given the geographical location of Beijing, it is rather difficult to improve air quality and cut emissions.”

Mr Du, deputy director of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, insisted the city’s air quality was safe for Olympic athletes.

Asked to comment on reports that some athletes were considering wearing face masks in Beijing, Mr Du said that was totally unnecessary.

But, as residents and visitors can attest, this week’s restrictions, which have caused a lot of inconvenience to the public, have yet to do much to lessen the smog.

Pollution readings from Mr Du’s office show air quality has worsened rather than showing any improvement over the past six days.

The past two days’ readings for particulate matter, a major pollutant in vehicle exhausts, were among the worst this month. On Thursday, the level reached 113 micrograms per cubic metre; yesterday the reading was 110.

A reading between 100 and 200 is defined as having the potential to severely affect people with respiratory problems and make breathing difficult for most other people.

Many people complained that pollution had got worse yesterday, with the humidity higher and the smog more dense than on Thursday.

Forecasts said pollution would not improve much today because of “unfavourable weather conditions”, meaning no wind or rain is expected.

Mr Du said pollution had been slight in the past two days, and he rejected criticism that the restriction on cars – drivers may use their vehicles only on alternate days – had not had the effect officials had promised.

“Our statistics have fully demonstrated that air quality this month has improved markedly compared to the same period last year. It is wrong to say air quality has worsened since the traffic restrictions,” he said.

“If you look at the figures since the beginning of July, you can observe a trend of improvement in air quality.”

Even though Beijing has spent 148 billion yuan (HK$168.6 billion) on pollution controls since 1998, air quality remains a top concern for the International Olympic Committee and the athletes competing in the Games, especially those in endurance events such as the marathon. Authorities in the capital have prepared a more drastic plan to take up to 90 per cent of cars off the roads.

The authorities claim sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide levels have dropped more than 20 per cent this year, but levels of airborne particles – the biggest headache – have fallen only 7 per cent.

A spokesman for Beijing’s municipal government, Li Wei , said: “We are confident of fulfilling the commitments we have made to the international community to ensure sound air quality during the Games.”