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Beijing’s Infernal Air Pollution

Beijing’s Infernal Air Pollution Will Kill A Few Olympic Athletes; Most US Athletes Will Wear Masks While Preparing for Their Events

Carbon Monoxide, Industrial Pollution,Lead,Particulate Matter: That’s Just The Air! What Horrors Await Those Who Eat Beijing’s Polluted Food?

July 5, 2008 7/05/2008 08:39 PM GMT (TransWorldNews)

I must make it really clear right off the bat that I have always been contemptuous of Beijing holding the Olympics, because of my knowledge of the genocidal toll on the Tibetans that China has exacted since 1949 in which almost 20% of the Tibetan population was killed by Chinese genocidal thugs at the top levels of government. One of these genocidal thugs, Hu Jin Tao, became China’s President, having orchestrated the 1992 “crackdown” in Lhasa. I have so many Tibetan friends that by osmosis, I have come to look at everything China does and say with skepticism, and sometimes, with outright hostility, much as traumatized European Jews continue to be angry with the National Socialist master-race genocidal ideologies and actions for having propagandized the commission of their ancestors’ murders in concentration camps, as if 70 years later, Berlin were chosen to be a center for the study and practice of International Law.

China has epic ghastly pollution: the air, the water, and the very food it exports. Regattas for sailing and yachting in the Olympics are supposed to take place in waterways that are now totally choked with algae resulting from massive chemical pollution, and thousands including military have been conscripted into algae cleaning efforts.

No pet owner has forgotten the Chinese fake glycerine-in-actuality-ethylene-glycol that made its way into American pet food, killing thousands of US pets last year, and into toothpaste which killed hundreds in Central America, particularly in Panama.

Aside from whether China DESERVED to be given the hosting of the Olympics in 2008, at this point a moot question, the karmic stains from the Tibetan and Uighur genocides upon China remain as vivid and as nauseating to the very few who are conscious of such things, as the stains on our own nation vis-a-vis our atrocities in much of the Middle East, which will go on and on in their impacts for decades into the future in most of the Islamic World, which, don’t forget, includes at least 40% of Africa.

I wrote as early as 2002 to His Holiness the Dalai Lama recommending that Tibetans protest the Beijing Olympics to bring attention to the genocide of the Tibetan People, their perhaps last chance to address these matter, advice which some Tibetans have taken quite seriously.

I write this today hoping for a sense of reconciliation towards most of the world that we have alienated in the past 8 years with the Bushies and the Neocons, but I also am deeply concerned for the athletes’ health going to Beijing. I regretfully predict that several will die there, not from terrorists due to the massive security paranoia in the Chinese authorities, but from plain old air pollution, especially in runners and cyclists doing long distances in that infernal smog.

[Thanks to the Wharton School]

Runners gagged as they limbered up and smog engulfed Hong Kong’s Tsing Ma Bridge. Pollution index readings on this morning in February 2006 were at 149, and any reading over 100 is unhealthy, yet 40,000 runners in China’s Hong Kong Standard Chartered Marathon, were unaware of the coming tragedy.

Later that day,Tsang Kam-yin, 53, a three-time marathoner, collapsed and died; 20 runners would be hospitalized, many for respiratory ailments and asthma attacks. “Everyone who took part in the marathon was at risk of harm to their health from pollution,” wrote Anthony Hedley, of Hong Kong University’s department of Community Medicine, upbraiding the oblivious marathon organizers.

Wharton’s professor Z. John Zhang, has called the Beijing Olympics a “coming-out” party for the world’s most populous nation. Governments are investing billions in sports venues like the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, the stadium under construction; subway-line extensions, etc., to make the games a world-class spectacle. Yet I predict that the air pollution will crash the Olympic party and focus world attention on environmental problems. China has good cause to worry about its image. The government tried to transform Beijing into some phoney Chinese “Beacon of Greenism.”

Sun Weide, deputy director of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games, recently described the effort to bring Beijing’s air pollution into line with global standards. The city has relocated more than 100 chemical, steel and pharmaceutical factories outside the city and replace 300,000 polluting taxis and buses with less-polluting vehicles and to replace coal furnaces with natural gas, rushing builders to finish construction before games so that dust from the building projects has a chance to settle, plus four new subway lines.

In 1998, Beijing recorded only 100 “Blue Sky” days with acceptable pollution and by 2005, the capital had 244 Blue Sky days. “We will meet air quality standards of the Chinese government and most cities of the world,” he said. A cleaner capital could be the legacy of the 2008 event, but at the expense of the athletes’ health? China needs much, much more than a quick-fix for its broader environmental crisis stemming from its weak legal system, corruption, poverty, two decades of double-digit industrial growth putting job growth ahead of the environment, and Communist propaganda that promoted man’s ability to conquer nature, rather than work in harmony with nature.

Meanwhile, factories spew toxins and particulates into the air, and rivers are choked with sewage. Acidification has spread to 30% of China’s cropland, and the Georgia Institute of Technology reports that the range of ozone exposure in agricultural regions in the Yangtze River Delta is enough to reduce yields by 10%. In Southern Guanxi Province, 92% of the sewage from the province’s cities flows into rivers, but installing treatment plants would cost $400 million in an area where yearly income is about $1,500 to

According to the World Bank, 16 cities in the world with the worst air pollution are located in China. The country’s Ministry of Science and Technology has estimated that 50,000 newborn babies a year die from the effects of air pollution. Tens of thousands of factories in the Pearl River Delta, an area where U.S. retailers like Wal-Mart source products for stores, are blamed for polluting Hong Kong. Chemical spills have flowed into eastern Russia, contaminating Russian drinking water, and Chinese pollution has been detected on California’s coast. Reliant on coal, China’s emissions of carbon dioxide, the global warming gas, are expected to surpass the USA’S in 2009.

Pan Yue, vice minister of China’s State Environmental Protection, wrote in November 2006 in the Wall Street Journal: “China is dangerously near a crisis point” with its environment. A third of China’s people drink substandard water and a third breathe badly polluted air, according to Pan. “True, China has made the kind of economic advances in three decades that required 100 years in Western countries. But China has also suffered a century’s worth of environmental damage in 30 years.

Eric Orts, also a professor at Wharton, says that pollution will likely drag down China’s economic growth and result in huge health-care costs; China’s pollution will erode its competitive position in the global economy. “If you want to be an international player, you have to be a place where executives can come and live and not worry about their kids getting lung cancer.”

One obstacle is a weak legal system: without economic damages from civil lawsuits, pollution controls go nowhere, as there is no outside legal mechanism to punish polluters. “Mao basically killed or reeducated most of the lawyers and judges. There was a whole generation wiped out by the Cultural Revolution.” Enforcing environmental laws works against local government’s economic interests. “The system is corrupt and there are no lawyers who can bring a basic lawsuit,” Orts notes. Further, China never developed anything like Greenpeace or the Sierra Club, forces for cleaner environmental movements around the world. The central government cracks down on non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, “because it’s not part of their view of how society develops.” The Chinese government is boosting its investments in the legal system, says Orts. The clean-up effort related to the 2008 Beijing Olympics shows “at least they understand this as a major issue.”

Professor Zhang agrees that China has a pollution problem, but he is more forgiving of the situation. The nation is climbing out of deep poverty, and environmental damage is one price it has had to pay for prosperity, Zhang notes. “The tolerance level is higher.” Stay a few days in Beijing and breath the air and “you don’t feel that terribly bad. When you are hungry, you worry about food, no matter how dirty you are. Chinese offer the analogy that “the nation is a construction site and everything is not tidy.” Zhang says the Chinese will present a modern city focused on environmental practices, a monumental sales pitch to other Chinese cities and the world, showing what great strides the country is making.

The central government likes to establish models and then have those models replicated around the country, Zhang says. “So in that sense, you are building up a model city [for the 2008 Olympics]. You are building a showroom.” But in this author’s opinion, Beijing in reality will be no more than a short-term Environmental Potemkin Village, one in which at least several athletes are likely to collapse and die on the tracks or on the field….

Even the normally acquiescent United Nations, through its Environment Programme, is very concerned. A recent UNEP report has ghastly findings about the concentration of particulate matter, which comes from construction sites, coal-burning boilers and dust storms. This pollutant is at about the same concentration level as it was in 2000, and at certain periods is three times above the WHO safe limit.

UNEP spokesman Eric Falt said Olympic organisers, athletes, spectators and Beijing residents had every right to be worried. “We have said it has been a concern for a long time, but I do not want to go beyond what has been said,” he told BBC. Falt said only long-term planning and proper enforcement could solve the problem.

The UNEP report contradicts comments made by Beijing officials. Du Shaozhong, Beijing’s head of environmental protection, said in August 2007: “I am sure we will be able to ensure good air quality during Olympic Games.”

I am not the only person worried about all of this….the U.S. Olympic Committee’s lead exercise physiologist, Randy Wilber described questions from athletes in a discussion with Juliet Macur of the International Herald Tribune: “Should I run behind a bus and breathe in the exhaust? Should I train on the highway during rush hour? Is there any way to acclimate to pollution?

“We have to be extremely careful and steer them in the right direction because the mind-set of the elite athlete is to do anything it takes to get that advantage,” Wilbur recently said. “If they thought locking themselves in the garage with the car running would help them win a gold medal, I’m sure they would do it. Our job, obviously, is to prevent that.” Wilber has spent the past two years devising safe ways for athletes to face the noxious air in Beijing. Wilber has traveled to Beijing three times to measure the pollution at each Olympic site, and said no one of them is relying on Chinese officials’ statistics!

International Olympic Committee’s president, Jacques Rogge, said he was confident the air would be clean because Chinese officials “are not going to let down the world.” (This is delusional pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, in reality).

Rogge recalled that pollution was a concern before the Summer Games in 1984 in Los Angeles and in 2004 in Athens but that the air quality was not a problem when competition began. Personally, I can’t forget in 1984 visiting Occidental College, my alma mater (also one of Barack Obama’s alma maters) and deciding to run one mile on the track that had been refurbished by a gift from New Mexico’s Robert Orville Anderson. What a mistake! The carbon monoxide and god knows what else caused me to black out, then vomit at the end of the mile for a least ten minutes-classic carbon monoxide poisoning!

Wilber’s research shows certain pollutants as “significantly higher” than they were at Athens or Los Angeles, so he scouted for alternate training sites in South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Malaysia for use in the days before the Beijing Games. The triathlon team is training in South Korea, and the canoe and kayak athletes went to Japan. Wilber encourages athletes to arrive in Beijing at the last moment, and has tested athletes to see if they qualify for an exemption to use an asthma inhaler. He urges all to wear masks over their noses and mouths from the minute they step foot in Beijing until they begin competing! This strategy could give the U.S. team an edge over less prepared teams, but its downside is to run the risk of offending the host country, creating political tension at an event that is supposed to foster good will among nations. I say, “So what? Why worry about offending the Chinese? Not just our athletes’ performance is at stake, but their health as well!”

Pollution levels on a typical day in Beijing are five times above World Health Organization standards for safety. Marathon world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie has allergies, and No. 1 women’s tennis player Justine Henin has asthma; both have reservations about competing in Beijing fearing that pollution will worsen their breathing problems. Some complained that Beijing’s foul air in earlier trials caused respiratory infections and nausea.

Colby Pearce, Olympic track cycling hopeful from Boulder, Colorado, saw smog floating inside the velodrome in Beijing. “When you are coughing up black mucus, you have to stop for a second and say: ‘O.K., I get it. This is a really, really bad problem we’re looking at.’ ” The U.S. boxing team, while competing in China ran in the hotel hallways instead of on the streets because the air was “disgusting.”

George Thurston, Professor of Environmental Medicine at New York University School of Medicine, said the body’s reaction to pollution exposure is immediate. “Your body says, ‘This air is bad; breathe less of it,’ and that’s a defensive mechanism. For athletes, that means they will go into oxygen debt sooner and will start cramping up. At the Olympics, that could be disastrous.”

Pollution can provoke allergic reactions or set off asthma attacks. The risk of a heart attack rises on high-pollution days. He worries most about ozone and particulate matter, two of five pollutants that affect an athlete’s performance. (Carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are the others.) Vehicle emissions, coal-fueled factories and construction sites in and around Beijing generate the high level of air pollution. “Ozone directly affects the lungs, and at high enough levels, it would cause fluid to come into the lungs,” Thurston said. “Particulate matter is actually breathed in, and the particles deposit on the lungs and can actually pass through the lungs and into the bloodstream. Both can cause acute reactions in people exposed to them.”

The issue is deadly to marathoners, triathletes and cyclists. Rogge has threatened to reschedule endurance events if the pollution level on competition days poses a danger to athletes. An athlete working out at a moderate pace for 30 minutes in poor air is subject to the same exposure as a sedentary person breathing that air for eight hours, Wilber said.

“It’s pretty rare to have a full-blown asthma attack because of pollution, but it will affect an athlete’s performance, and our testing shows that. You’re not going to drop dead, but your oxygen transport is definitely being compromised. It could mean the difference between a gold medal and finishing in the back of the pack.”

“We’ve got to take a lot of precautions to keep our athletes away from the Olympic hoopla and out of the pollution before their event,” said Chris Hipgrave, the Olympic director at USA Canoe/Kayak, adding that the team would use high-efficiency particulate air filters in room air-conditioners at the Games. Tim Hornsby, an Olympic hopeful in sprint kayak who has exercise-induced asthma, said having an inhaler would be crucial for those with breathing problems. Pollution is a major asthma trigger. “It’s frightening to feel like you can’t breathe,” he said.

Wilber’s U.S. Olympic Committee lab co-designed a mask using activated carbon filtration system; 750 to 1,000 masks, costing $20-$25 each, will be part of the Olympic gear. The masks filter 85 percent to 100 percent of the main pollutants, Wilber said, compared with paper masks, which only filter 25 percent to 45 percent (but not the carbon monoxide, we hasten to add).

Sandrine Tonge, spokeswoman for the International Olympic Committee, said the international federation for each sport makes the rules on what athletes cannot wear in competition. Thus, it is conceivable that some athletes will wear masks during their Olympic events, but Wilber said no Americans would do so. “I think it would be a huge political issue and an embarrassment to the Chinese people and to the IOC if American athletes wore masks in the event itself,” Wilber said. “If that image was beamed around the world on TV, it would cause nothing but problems,” but once again, we ask: so what?)

“It’s much more important to guard against the pollution beforehand and go to the line with clean lungs,” he said. U.S. triathletes wore masks in China last September, but removed them before competing. They stepped off the bus looking like, one triathlete put it, a gathering of Darth Vaders. No other teams were wearing masks. Some opponents snickered. “You do look kind of silly wearing it,” said one triathlete, Jarrod Shoemaker, 25, who had competed in Beijing before, “but I wore it before the race this time, and I didn’t feel burning in my throat afterward. I could still taste the grit on my teeth, but I could actually talk and breathe. That wasn’t the case in other years.”

So this describes what Olympic Athletes will be breathing in Beijing. What will they be eating? More ethylene glycol? More poisoned eels and farm- raised fish mixed in with their Kung Pao Chicken or those General Tso’s casseroles?

The smartest and/or best financed nations will be bringing their own food and their own caterers with them, for this reason, but nothing will prevent the injuries and probably several deaths in Olympic athletes from Beijing’s unspeakable air pollution. The karmic, spiritual, and humanitarian pollution in China is something that very few even care to question.

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