- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2008

BEIJING | 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.

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