Guangzhou Marathon

“I run to be healthy, but I never know whether I’m actually getting healthier by running or whether I’m just breathing in more harmful particles”, Zhong Yu.

Last Saturday was the second ever Guangzhou Marathon. The theme of this year’s race was ‘Renowned City, Harmony, Health’. The event attracted thousands of running enthusiasts and among them a runner named Zhong Yu, who had come especially from Yunnan for the event. Strapped to her back for the whole length of the course was a PM2.5 Personal Air Pollution Sampler, more commonly known as a ‘mechanical lung’. This meant that as she ran she would also be measuring the level of PM2.5 in the air.

Last year, Zhong Yu carried the same type of PM2.5 monitoring device as she ran the complete course of the Beijing Marathon. The results of those readings left her both extremely disappointed and worried. It was one of the reasons prompting her decision to leave Beijing.

This time, she invited her friend Di, a Guangzhou local, to join her in bringing a monitoring device along for the run. Di is a member of Guangzhou’s Stencil Graffiti FIREXRD group and has always been keenly interested in local cultural development. In 2010, he suffered a serious case of pneumonia, and since then he's paid more careful attention to his health. It's also when he began running. And he believes that clean air is just as important as cultural space.   

Di told us “our friends who run in Guangzhou really worry about the impact that air pollution is having on their health. The course of this year’s marathon is very similar to the ‘Nine Bridges’, which is the route we usually run, so we’re really looking forward to finding out the results of the readings. It’ll give us all something to think about.”

Guangzhou MarathonZhong Yu and Di carried the PM2.5 monitoring devices, weighing in at around 1kg, for six hours over the whole 42km of the course. The monitoring device simulates human breathing, taking in three liters of air per minute, and the PM2.5 in the air is absorbed by a filter. The filters from the marathon have already been sent to the labs at Peking University’s School of Public Health to undergo further analysis of the air composition and the concentration of PM2.5. The results will be out in two weeks time. 

Greenpeace was also able to make real-time readings using a sensor to monitor the air quality on the 5km ‘mini-marathon’, testing the PM2.5 levels along part of the route of the main event. We found that the concentration of PM2.5 along the marathon course was on average 130 micrograms per cubic meter. That’s over twice the national level two standard for the daily average (75 micrograms per cubic meter) and over four times above the daily standard indicated by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) air quality guidelines (25 micrograms per cubic meter).

At Liede Bridge, the reading was even higher at 141 micrograms per cubic meter. Under these circumstances, elderly people, children, and people suffering from heart or respiratory problems should avoid extended periods of outdoor high intensity exercise. It’s already been some time since WHO revealed that the inhalation of PM2.5 increases a person’s chances of getting lung cancer. 

Zhong Yu expressed her dismay at these results. “I assumed the air would be really clean in the South. When I got to Liede Bridge, the air was so hazy you could barely see Canton Tower. I never thought the air in Guangdong would be this bad. Air quality like this will have a seriously damaging effect on people’s health under ordinary circumstances, let alone if you’re doing long periods of outdoor exercise.” 

The State Council’s Air Pollution Prevention and Control Plan packs a strong punch when it comes to atmospheric governance. Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei have all come up with their own comprehensive plans for implementation, which will make reductions to the use of coal. They are striving to seriously reduce their levels of PM2.5. Guangdong’s own plan, known as the Guangdong Twenty, has yet to be released.

Guangdong, as a trendsetter for China’s economic development and innovation, should be taking the lead in transforming its economy and energy sources. Guangdong should be tackling pollution from the root of the problem and drawing up targets for reducing coal consumption so that as soon as possible, its citizens can start breathing clean air.