Fine particles nearly 10 times WHO ceiling
Yang Changjiang did not realise how much Beijing's air quality had deteriorated until he tested it himself. Using a hand-held detector, the veteran environmental reporter and his family began a 10-day experiment early last month. They stood at the side of the road in the capital's Zhongguancun district, testing for fine airborne particles up to 2.5 microns in diameter called PM2.5.
'My findings were really shocking,' he said. 'The maximum concentration of PM2.5 hit 581 micrograms per cubic metre at one point, with a daily average reading of 246 micrograms per cubic metre.'
That's nearly 10 times the 24-hour average of 25 micrograms per cubic metre that the World Health Organisation recommends as a ceiling. These fine particles can lodge deep in the lungs and cause serious respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, including deadly cancers.
Yang, who works for China Inspection and Quarantine Times, a newspaper published by the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, says his findings may not be comprehensive or scientifically accurate but they illustrate the extent of pollution.
'We all felt frustrated by the continued opacity of the city's air pollution and therefore decided to do something on our own,' he said.
'The truth about pollution cannot be withheld forever, especially in this internet age.'
Yang is one of more than 30 Beijing residents who joined a campaign organised by non-governmental group Green Beagle. Since May, the volunteers have been measuring the city's air pollution.
The campaign, sponsored by the United States-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, was initially aimed at promoting awareness of the health risks of second-hand smoke.
'But naturally our volunteers also showed immense interest in knowing more about the pollution of our homes, neighbourhoods and offices,' Wang Qiuxia, the group's organiser, said.
And 'when they found their pollution readings were in such contrast to air quality figures released by the government, they realised the pollution problem has largely been glossed over'.
Volunteers underwent a brief training session on how to operate the hand-held detector before taking it home for a week, sometimes longer. Many people registered for the campaign but had to wait their turn, as the group has only one device, which cost more than 20,000 yuan (HK$24,500).
Although some experts criticised its methodology, the group posted many of the results on its website, creating a stir among the public.
'We have no intention of challenging the authorities with our own findings,' Wang said. Instead, she said, the goal was to ascertain the truth - to help the public understand the severity of pollution and think about what they can do to improve the environment.
Du Shaozhong, spokesman for the municipal environment bureau, cautioned that attempts to monitor pollution must be guided by scientific attitudes and methods.
'It is a good thing, and of course we welcome and protect such enthusiasm and public activism,' he said.
'But considering the complexity of pollution monitoring, we have to make sure that [they] are not bluffing and the public is not misled.'
Feng Yongfeng , the founder of Green Beagle, said the experiment was meaningful because it showed it was possible for the public to find out the truth about pollution. That is crucial, given the government's reluctance to face up to the bleak reality of the problem.
'People may criticise us for using not so sophisticated a detector,' he said. 'But it is even more unacceptable when our right to truth, which every citizen deserves, is still being denied while the government's figures fail to paint an accurate picture of the polluted environment.'
On December 2, Du's office rejected a written application by Beijing resident Yu Ping's to access PM2.5 data. The office said that fine particles, which have yet to be formally included in the national pollution standards, cannot be used to gauge pollution.
Yu said the reply was unacceptable to him and all those who care about the environment. He told Southern Metropolis News he was considering taking the municipal environment bureau to court under a State Council edict on government information transparency.
Recent reports that the nation's leaders who live in the Zhongnanhai compound in the heart of Beijing have relied on air purifiers to cope with the capital's persistent smog since the end of the 2008 Olympics have stoked the anger of the public.
'We are living in an era featuring crumbling government credibility and soaring public distrust of government,' said Yang.
To help restore that credibility, he said, the government should hold public hearings on the revised air quality standards that authorities published last month.
Hearings would grant the public a rare opportunity to have face-to-face dialogue with government officials and make their voice heard, Yang said.
Wang Jin an environmental law professor at Peking University, agreed that public hearings were a good idea.
'If the new standards are compiled in accordance to socio-economic development and technical restraints instead of basic health and environmental needs, they are like invitations to further pollution,' Wang told the Southern Weekend newspaper.
The average daily amount, in micrograms per cubic metre, of PM2.5 that Yang Changjiang detected. The WHO recommends 25