Beijing’s pollution levels dropped Wednesday to less than half of the previous day’s, the lowest reading since authorities began pulling cars off the road and shutting down factories to address athletes’ concerns about air quality ahead of the Olympic Games.


Beijing’s pollution levels dropped Wednesday to less than half of the previous day’s, the lowest reading since authorities began pulling cars off the road and shutting down factories to address athletes’ concerns about air quality ahead of the Olympic Games.
A cooling wind and some rain helped sweep away pollutants and gave Beijingers a respite from the sultry heat and humidity that had cloaked the city for days.
The polluted skies over the Olympic host city have been one of the biggest worries for Olympics organizers. The concerns prompted Beijing officials to institute drastic measures earlier this month, included pulling half the city’s 3.3 million vehicles off the roads, halting most construction and closing some factories in the capital and surrounding provinces.
The measures are having the desired effect, Du Shaozhong, deputy director of Beijing’s Environmental Protection Bureau, told The Associated Press in an interview.
“The daily data since July 20 shows an improvement in air quality. It reflects the results since we restricted traffic and stopped heavy-polluting factories and construction,” he said. “That’s why we say the measures have been effective.”
Athletes participating in the Aug. 8-24 games have raised concerns about the impact of the city’s pollution on their health and their performance from the start. Some of the 10,500 Olympic athletes began arriving in large numbers this week — though others headed to train in neighboring South Korea, Japan and other places to avoid Beijing’s air for as long as possible.
A World Bank study found China is home to 16 of the 20 worst cities for air quality. Three-quarters of the water flowing through urban areas is unsuitable for drinking or fishing.
Some experts argue that weather, not the curbs, are largely to thank for the cleaner air. And Du himself said if the air quality continues to be a problem in the coming days, Beijing officials will consider contingency plans to expand the traffic and factory emission cutbacks.
“If weather conditions are not typical, we can strengthen the measures and enforce them more strictly,” he said.
The air pollution index dropped to 44 on Wednesday, less than half what it was a day earlier, and the lowest since July 20 when the measures were implemented.
Du said that seven of the last 11 days have met the national standard for air quality, while four did not. China considers any reading below 100 to be acceptable, a so-called “blue sky day.”
A reading below 50 is considered good and between 51 to 100 is moderate. But critics say even moderate levels are still above the World Health Organization’s guidelines for healthy air.
The other four days — from Thursday to Sunday — had readings of 113, 110, 118, and 113, levels classified as unhealthy for sensitive groups. On those days, Beijing had sweltering temperatures and a thick, grayish haze that reduced skyscrapers to ghostly outlines.
Du said a combination of heat, high humidity and little wind created conditions that made it difficult to disperse major airborne pollutants — a mix of construction dust, vehicle exhaust and factory emissions and power plant fumes.
The extreme weather conditions were “most unfortunate” because Du was holding news conferences on the environmental measures during those days, he said.
“I was being asked questions, especially from reporters who had just arrived. It was almost impossible for them to believe that Beijing can have blue sky days,” he said.
A tropical storm that hit southeastern China earlier this week brought strong winds and some rain, helping clear skies and lower temperatures by Tuesday. It also highlighted how much weather plays a part in curbing pollution. By late Wednesday afternoon, the haze had returned.
“When there’s favorable weather conditions — when you have rain or wind — pollution levels will be much lower, regardless of other measures,” said Steven Andrews, an independent environmental consultant based in Washington. Andrews has raised questions in the past about whether Beijing manipulated its environmental data by moving monitoring stations to less-polluted areas and changing the way it measures pollutants.
“The real issue is how it will change in the next couple days. If it doesn’t rain, how fast will the numbers rise again?” he said.
At least one top athlete is staying away from the games because of air pollution. Famed Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie, an asthmatic, decided to pull out of the marathon event, citing health concerns. The International Olympic Committee has said endurance sports longer than an hour may be delayed if air quality is not adequate.
On Sunday, the opening ceremony of the Athletes’ Village came against a backdrop of thick gray haze. The housing complex itself was invisible from the nearby main Olympic Green.
The USOC is providing its 600-plus athletes with special air masks, which they have the option of wearing out on the streets. The masks are not intended to be worn during training or competition but some athletes have said they are considering wearing them.
New Zealand’s athletes have been issued face masks as part of their standard team equipment while team managers have advised athletes to wear masks around the Olympic village but not during competition. Japan distributed masks normally used on construction sites to its national team.