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Beijing to step up air pollution monitoring

9th October 2012

Authorities in the Chinese capital say they have completed a new monitoring network to track air pollution in the city.

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Amid growing public pressure and unofficial pollution monitoring from the US Embassy in Beijing, the government has set up monitoring equipment at a further 15 location throughout the smog-ridden city that will track the concentration of small particulates breathed in by its inhabitants.

Known as PM2.5, this form of particulates is produced by the burning of fuels in vehicles and power plants.

The particles are the smallest measured by pollution monitoring stations, and can penetrate deep into lung tissue, with negative consequences for human health.

Chinese authorities first began tracking PM2.5 in January, after hitting out at an unofficial reading taken by the US Embassy, which was published daily on the microblogging service Twitter.

PM2.5 is considered a more acccurate reflection of air quality than other measures, and will be picked up by monitors around the city in a three-month trial, although it will not be used immediately to produce air quality readings.

The Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Centre now has 35 monitoring stations set up in central Beijing and its suburbs, including the central Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven in the south of the city, and the Beijing Botanical Gardens.

After the successful completion of the trial, the city's environmental protection department will move to incorporate PM2.5 in the city's formal air quality readings, rather than relying on the larger particles it currently measures.

Beijing is famed for its smogs and beige-coloured skies, prompting people to question increasingly the current air pollution data put out by the government.

This week, the US Embassy Twitter feed reported a PM2.5 reading of 137 microgrammes per cubic metre, a level regarded as "unhealthy" by standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Similar levels were recorded at the same time by the Beijing environmental monitoring website, but no interpretation of the pollution levels was given. China's environmental standards for air pollution are less stringent than those in the US.

In June, Beijing called on foreign embassies to refrain from publishing independent pollution figures, adding that it was not fair to judge Chinese air by American standards, which have become stricter over time.

However, US consulates in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu have continued to post readings of their host cities' air quality on Twitter, and consulates in Shenyang and Wuhan are likely to follow suit.

According to US Ambassador Gary Locke, the missions feel they have a duty to inform American citizens and their dependents of the air conditions, so they can make "appropriate decisions" about their health, and that of their children.

Locke told a meeting at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington that PM2.5 particles could damage human respiratory systems and health, in a manner similar to secondary tobacco smoke inhalation.


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