Tuesday 4 October 2011

Concerns over Beijing air pollution ahead of Tour

It's a well-known fact that professional cyclists are paranoid about their health - they'll often use their elbows or a pen to press the buttons in a lift rather than get any sort of bacteria on their fingers and even the suggestion of a sneeze in a crowded room will have them running for an air-tight bunker. When even a minor infection can lead to poor results, sometimes enough to ruin an otherwise successful season, it's quite understandable.

Thus, it's no surprise that some have been getting more than a little worried about the condition of the air just ahead of the inaugural Tour of Beijing. The Chinese government, at great expense, arranged for factories upwind from the Olympic Stadium to be temporarily switched off and introduced measures to limit road traffic prior to the 2008 Games, thus creating the impression that they had done something about the country's notorious pollution problems. Some of those measures were retained after the Games, but satellite imagery and the still-limited numbers of foreigners who have been able to travel to areas usually off-limits have revealed that production is still considered very much more important than a healthy environment in those parts that the politicians prefer the rest of the world not to see. Prevailing winds from the south and south-east tend to create concentrations of air-borne toxins in the regions to the north of the city centre, prevented from dispersing by the mountains - right where much of the Tour is due to be held.

Beijing - a clear day and a smoggy day. Photographer Bobak Ha'Eri explains: "This is a pair of photos taken in Beijing (aka Peking) by me during a trip to the People's Republic of China in August 2005. I was in Beijing twice over a period of a week and a half, both times at the same hotel and in approximately the same room. The photo on the right was taken during a sunny, otherwise clear day on my first visit. The photo on the left was on my second visit, after it had rained for approximately 2 days. Both of these photos were taken in the morning around the 07:00-08:00 hour. The difference is staggering. I can say that during the day that I took the photo on the right, the air made walking around (and I did for miles) rather difficult." (© Bobak Ha'Eri CC2.5)
David Millar, in town with the Garmin-Cervelo team, reports via Twitter that he has "never seen smog like this. I'm reckoning just over 1km of visibility, kinda spooky. I actually like it, it's like a smoke-filled jazz club."

EarthTimes reported in March this year that air pollution levels in Beijing were literally off the scale - US Embassy staff, attempting to measure the scale of the problem using standard equipment capable of recording figures up to 500 API (Air Pollution Index, a simplified measure of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, suspended particulates, carbon monoxide and ozone in the air). However, the equipment used was unable to register the actual level, shown by subsequent investigation to be 595API. According to the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection, any figure of more than 300API rates as "severely polluted," warning that "healthy people will experience reduced endurance in activities. There may be strong irritations and symptoms and may trigger other illnesses. Elders and the sick should remain indoors and avoid exercise. Healthy individuals should avoid out door activities."

It's probably safe to say that, should conditions become that bad during the next week, the Tour will be disrupted by riders very sensibly refusing to race and insisting on staying indoors - or even going home.

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