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Cleaning up the air can be done

Updated: 2012-03-15 07:26
By Daniel Shaw ( China Daily)

After visiting me recently in Beijing, my high school friend sent me an e-mail from his hotel room in Shanghai.

Thanks for taking him around, he said. He enjoyed seeing the hutong, the Drum and Bell Tower and having a taste of real Chinese food.

Only, if he and his wife come to China in the summer - a trip we had talked about for quite some time - couldn't we all just meet in Shanghai? On his last few days in the capital, he explained, he had had more than his fill of the smog that descends from time to time to blot out the sun, foul the air and make life a bit more unpleasant. He wanted to see more of Beijing but not at the cost of endangering his health.

To me, his fears about the infamous "Great Pall of China" were greatly exaggerated.

After all, I had already been living in China for a year without having any serious complications. Would a week really be so harmful?

Research suggests that it wouldn't. Richard Saint Cyr, an American doctor living in Beijing, recently drew on two scientific articles to calculate how dangerous breathing air in the Chinese capital is likely to be. Reporting his results on his blog, MyHealth Beijing, he concluded that an average day in the city is roughly equivalent to smoking one-sixth of a cigarette - far less harmful than he had expected.

Still, lest we be lulled into an unwarranted state of comfort, he was quick to note that the results didn't absolve air pollution. They only showed how unhealthy smoking is.

I found the data to be reassuring. And the same can be said for the government's recent efforts to curtail pollution.

Since January, Beijing has been releasing numbers about the concentration of PM2.5, particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, in the air. Many other cities and regions in the country have either started to follow suit or will soon start.

Of course, better monitoring will only tell the public how great the danger is. It will do nothing to eradicate it.

The good news for those who will live in Beijing for years is that other cities have successfully cleaned up their air.

While working as a reporter for a newspaper in southern Indiana, I was once asked to accompany a local Chamber of Commerce delegation to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Long before I was there, the TV anchorman Walter Cronkite had said the city had the worst air of any place in America. But decades of fighting pollution had changed that.

Of course, Beijing, with its millions of cars on the road, will find it much harder to rid the air of pollution. But residents should at least be glad to know it can be done.

The author is a copy editor with China Daily.