Air Quality at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

With the 2008 Olympic Games fast approaching, some in the media are raising the issue of Beijing’s air quality and the likelihood it will impact athletes’ performance:

Radio New Zealand News: Haze over Beijing

TVNZ One News: Hazy skies cover Beijing

Reuters: Even with “blue skies”, is Beijing’s air safe?

Others are downplaying the pollution concerns:

New Zealand Herald: The air they will breathe Our air is ok – Kiwi rowers

Reuters: New Zealand team dismisses smog fears

AFP: IOC says pollution exaggerated as athletes wear masks

We asked New Zealand experts to share their views on the subject.

How do China’s air quality and air quality standards stack up in an international context?

Gustavo A. Olivares P., Air Quality Scientist, National Institute of water & Atmospheric Research said:

“Having read what’s in the press I wouldn’t like to have my name next to those articles. The BBC is using a handheld monitor that they stick out the window every day at the same hour and try to compare that to the 24 hour averages!!! Then, there are some reports about local NO2 concentrations from satellite images!!!

Filtering the information I see that the air quality in Beijing is not too much worse than say Los Angeles in ’84 or Athens during the last Olympic games … and I still remember the 4 gold medals for Carl Lewis. We’re not talking about several miligrams of PM10 [particulate matter with a diameter of ten micrometres or less] everywhere and all the time. We’re talking about peak concentrations of around 600 micrograms per cubic metre at rush hour or late evening.

However, the most crucial issue that I have not seen in any of the press articles is that the health effects have been studied on populations and not individuals so it is wrong to say if any one person breathes air with more than “X” micrograms per cubic metre of a pollutant he or she will get sick. We all know that it does not work like that – in fact we don’t really know how it works on an individual basis.

Perhaps a bigger concern for the marathon is the guy with a camera on a motorcycle right in front of the runners.”

Ian Longley, Senior Urban Air Quality Scientist at NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) said:

“Air quality standards are generally intended to be tough, but achievable targets. If achieving the standard is too easy, a tougher standard needs to be adopted. This is especially true for particulate matter (PM10) with the WHO guidelines clearly challenging authorities to implement the toughest practical standards. This is supported by the medical evidence which is yet to find a ‘safe’ threshold below which there are no effects on health.

China has a 24 hour PM10 standard of 150 micrograms/cubic metre, which is the WHO interim guideline for developing countries. Many Chinese cities cannot achieve this standard, including Beijing. In that sense, it is an appropriate standard. Most ‘developed’ nations have a 24 hour standard of 50, including the countries of the EU, Australia and New Zealand.

Some of the media indicates that China is neglecting to fully protect its citizens by not having a standard for PM2.5 – the finer particles derived mainly from combustion which have a greater effect on health. In contrast the US has the same PM10 standard as China (150), but can claim to protect its citizens health through its additional PM2.5 standard. The UK has recently introduced a PM2.5 standard and similar standards are likely to be in place across the EU in a few years time. Australia is considering a PM2.5 standard, but there are not yet any specific plans to introduce such a standard in New Zealand.”

Guy Coulson, Group Manager, Urban Air Quality, National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research said:

“It looks as if values recorded in Beijing at the moment are in the region of 120ug/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre). This is a value still found in NZ. For example Christchurch and Timaru both experienced days with 120ug/m3 last winter, Arrowtown got to 168 ug/m3 while Alexandra recorded a maximum of 105ug/m3. These places will regularly experience concentrations of 60 or 70 ug/m3 during winter – so you can see that it’s no worse than being in a South Island town on a winter’s night.”

How likely to succeed are emergency measures to improve Beijing’s air quality?

Ian Longley, Senior Urban Air Quality Scientist at NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) said:

“The sources of Beijing’s air pollution are complex. Reducing traffic may have a small effect – attempts to bring about sudden large reductions elsewhere (Athens, Delhi) have had minor or inconclusive impacts. The measures as a whole will certainly make air quality better than it would otherwise have been – the question is by how much?. But the overall impression people will be left with – whether the Air Pollution Index gets down to the desired “100” – dubbed the “blue-sky day” – or whether the skies look murky or blue, will probably come down to what the weather is like during the Olympics”

What health effects are the current conditions likely to have on athletes?

Brian A. Wilson, Director Auckland Cardiac Rehabilitation Clinic, Dept. of Sport & Exercise Science, University of Auckland said:

“In general our airways respond to most air pollutants as irritants and therefore constrict to prevent their entry deep into the lung. Unfortunately for athletes this also restricts airflow and therefore may reduce the flow of respiratory gases (oxygen and carbon dioxide) and could result in decreased performance, especially in endurance events. Although all athletes will have some reaction those with sensitive airways (mostly asthmatics) will suffer the greatest response. This could result in a severe asthma attack in some athletes especially since some of the asthmatics may not be taking their usual medications due to doping regulations.”

Jim Cotter, Exercise & Environmental Physiologist, School of Physical Education, University of Otago said:

“The current Olympic air quality conditions are likely to have little or no lasting health effects on most of the competing athletes.

Poor air quality in large industrial areas – including Beijing – is due to a combination of toxic gases and airborne particulates, most of which affect peoples’ pulmonary system (airways and lung tissue) and cardiovascular system (heart, blood vessels, and blood). Many athletes have extremely strong pulmonary and cardiovascular systems, so residing in Beijing poses none of the usual risk for people with chronic diseases such as heart disease, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

However, athletes tend to have higher sensitivity for Exercise-Induced Asthma or Bronchoconstriction (EIA or EIB), which can be triggered by most toxic gases and airborne particulates. This can easily impair training and competition performance for athletes in most of the field/team, cycling and running events.

Andrew Kilding from AUT and I spent time in Beijing last August monitoring the nature and severity of pollution and climate, and observing how athletes coped with exposure during competition. He and Tony Edwards from the New Zealand Academy of Sport have been identifying athletes who develop airway obstruction/inflammation sufficiently to be designated as having EIB (and therefore able to be medicated against it) in response to exercise in polluted environments. If the Air Pollution Index deteriorates over the coming week, I think the dilemma for many athletes – especially those who are in the grey zone of having some effect but not enough to allow medication – will be whether to wear a decent (carbon-filter) mask in training and have to deal with its breathing impediment, or to risk a cumulative effect of breathing the pollutants.

At another level, I find it interesting that the media appear so willing to focus on the health effects of Beijing’s air when one in five of us face bigger health issues from smoking, and some athletes bemoan the air quality and wear face masks but have no problem injecting or eating substances that carry higher risks.”

Simon Hales, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington said:

“In healthy people, exposure to urban air pollution over a few hours or days is unlikely to have any noticeable health impact. However, the best indicator of health impacts is long term (annual average) exposure. Long term exposure causes increases in overall death rates which we can measure in epidemiological studies. Long term exposure to air pollution in many Asian cities, (with average levels of over 100 mcg/m3 PM10), probably causes health risks similar to those caused by smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.”

Guy Coulson, Group Manager, Urban Air Quality, National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research said:

“It is very difficult to make pronouncements on the health effects of being in these levels of pollution. The cigarette comparison is pretty much meaningless. Health effects of pollutants are generally calculated for entire populations (at least in the tens of thousands) and generally over long term exposures (years). Therefore it’s not really possible to say if these levels are dangerous to any given individual.

Most of the athletes at the games will by definition be fit and healthy adults, who are the group at lowest risk from pollution, so a couple of weeks in Beijing shouldn’t do them any harm. Higher risk groups such as the very young, the very old, asthmatics, people with heart conditions and so on, may want to err on the side of caution but it is not possible say definively who should or shouldn’t go.”

To talk to these and other scientists contact the Science Media Centre on 04 499 5476 or