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November 26th, 2007:

China’s Air Quality and the Olympics

Mara Hvistendahl – November 26, 2007 12:44 PM – Worldchanging

As an amateur runner in Shanghai’s half-marathon on Sunday, I wasn’t overly concerned with my time. But what was I doing to my lungs?

There’s reason to worry: In August, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge warned that endurance events at next summer’s Beijing Olympics might have to be postponed because of air pollution. And in October, a United Nations Environment Program report cast more doubt on the prospects for cleaning up the city in time for the Games. In some cases, the report found, Beijing pollution levels are more than three times the safe limits set by the World Health Organization.

In 2000, Beijing launched its ambitious Olympic bid, promising to go green in exchange for the right to host the Games. That same year, I spent my mornings as a foreign student jogging along a Beijing canal — and passed most of the summer with a chest cold. I often wondered whether the pollution canceled out the health benefits of a run.

If I had looked into it at the time, I would have learned that it did, and then some. Competing in endurance sports in polluted cities is, most experts agree, a bad idea. The short-term health effects are well-documented. Here’s Germany’s Der Spiegel, from a good article on pollution in Beijing:

Endurance athletes spend hours performing at peak levels in the open air, inhaling up to 150 liters of air a minute — more than 10 times as much as a sedentary office worker. Ozone and fine dust can cause inflammation that requires treatment with asthma and anti-inflammatory drugs.

Exposure to pollution during exercise may also cause long-term health damage, heightening, for example, the risk of heart attack.

In 2001, after I left Beijing, the city won the Olympic bid, and embarked on a pollution control program. Over the next five years, the UNEP report found, levels of major pollutants like sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide dropped. The report was positive about other efforts to green the Olympics in areas such as waste management, green space, and clean transport. But it singled out air pollution as an ongoing problem, pointing out that in 2006 pollutant levels started to increase again. And pollution from neighboring cities and provinces is still a big problem, according to findings published earlier this year in the journal Atmospheric Environment.

Shanghai is only around two-thirds as polluted as Beijing. But to put that into perspective, Shanghainese go to Hong Kong to enjoy clean air — and Hong Kong air contains around 30 percent more particulates than air in Los Angeles, America’s most polluted city. At the Hong Kong marathon last February, one man died and 20 people were hospitalized. The event was held when the air pollution index was at 150 — a number the city classifies as a “very high” level, at which healthy, sedentary people are warned to take care when breathing the air. In Shanghai, the average API hovers in the “severe” 200s.

For Sunday’s race, the weather in Shanghai was, thankfully, clear (although blue skies aren’t an indication that air in China is safe to breathe). But because of the route organizers chose, the race was more unbearable than it needed to be. We wound through industrial areas and alongside highways thick with mid-morning traffic. For a quarter mile, I trailed a slow-moving bus, breathing in exhaust as workers watched from the windows (check out a similar scene here). Runners of the full marathon had it even worse – for the final 13 miles, they snaked back and forth through dirty Minhang district.

China routinely closes major roads and restricts traffics during international conferences and visits by foreign dignitaries. For the marathon, organizers took over a major stadium, hired fleets of buses to transport runners’ possessions to the finish line, and mobilized 26 miles’ worth of elderly neighborhood committee members, who performed choreographed routines in matching sweatsuits on the sidelines. Central Shanghai also encompasses the new-build, relatively clean island of Pudong, where many runners train. So it’s unclear why Shanghai officials would sign off on such a route. It’s possible they don’t know what they’re doing. But more likely — and more alarmingly — they know and don’t care.

This sort of planning is earning Chinese marathons a bad reputation. After last year’s Shanghai race, one runner posted on an athletes’ bulletin board: “There were vehicles running in the opposite direction, and since all the intersections were closed for the runners, the vehicles piled up on the opposite side of the road, emitting exhaust, making you feel like running in the middle of a downtown congestion…. After all being said and done, I won’t run Shanghai again due to the pollution.”

This year’s race went off with few major incidents. I finished in 1:53. But I worry about the long-term effects of running distance events in China. My bus encounter certainly diminished the fun of the race. It is this impression that China most needs to change — to show that it genuinely cares about athletes’ health, not just about keeping its Olympic bid.