Child in a bus

Image: One of the 16 volunteers with the sampler simulating human breathing. © Greenpeace

This was originally posted on Greenpeace International on April 23, 2013.

You have seen air pollution before, but not in this way. Beijing’s hazardous air is changing the energy outlook of the country, and sending a warning to other countries on the human cost of heavy reliance on coal.

Beijing’s “airpocalypse” in last December and January was an exceptionally serious air pollution episode that is estimated to have caused a 3-fold increase in hospitalizations due to respiratory diseases and has drawn comparisons to London smog in 1952. In that time Greenpeace recruited 16 volunteers to wear a personal air pollution sampler several days each. The samplers simulate human breathing by drawing in air through a nozzle near the volunteer’s head, at a rate close to human breathing. They capture the smallest and most dangerous particles, known as PM2.5, into a filter that can then be sent to a laboratory for analysis.

The first thing we realized when we started the research was that the sampler actually enables you to see the pollution. The filters reveal the amount of toxic particles that enter your lungs during a single day in Beijing.

03 May 2013

A fine particle filter showing the pollution captured in 24 hours – this is what goes into your lungs on a polluted day. Copyright: Greenpeace

Then we got the results from the lab. Arsenic, mercury, lead, selenium... a neurotoxic and cancer-causing cocktail. The results are not pretty, and reveal clues to the reasons behind China’s lung cancer epidemic. The WHO recently released the results of a massive research project into what is making us sick, pointing out air pollution as the biggest environmental health risk in the world. The research estimated that 20% of lung cancer cases in China are caused by outdoor air pollution.

Zhong Yu, a marathon runner, is one of the volunteers who had her personal air pollution exposure tested. She was shocked to find out that her samples contained arsenic levels exceeding the national standard X-fold: ”No matter how good the training shoes you have, how nice the clothes you have, how good the coach you can hire; but without good air, and running with a mask, the meaning of running is gone.”

The dramatic air pollution problem is creating a lot of pressure to reduce coal consumption, changing the political landscape. A key source of PM2.5 pollution and the detected toxic metals is coal-burning – all the detected toxic metals are emitted by coal and more coal is burned within 600km of Beijing than in all of the U.S. Without addressing the massive and growing regional and national coal consumption, there is little chance of bringing the air pollution problem under control. While far from a done deal, a coal consumption peak within this decade has entered the political debate.

Beijing marathon

Image: Zhong Yu and other runners in the 2012 Beijing International Marathon. Nov. 25, 2012. © Greenpeace

The future path of Chinese coal consumption is one of the make or break questions for action on climate change – for the future of all of us. The solutions that are put in place to protect people's health from air pollution – slowing coal use growth, more renewable energy, pushing for economic development less reliant on the most polluting industries – will also help shift China towards a lower CO2 pathway.

As the preparation of China’s next five-year plan, covering the period 2015-2020, is bound to begin in earnest later this year, the pressure to control air pollution and coal consumption can have far-reaching impacts.

An International Herald Tribune story today offers another example of how the air pollution problem is affecting quality of life and even China's competitiveness. According to the report, some middle- and upper-class Chinese parents and expatriates are beginning to leave China, a trend that executives say could result in a huge loss of talent and experience.