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Bathed in smog: Beijing's pollution could cut 5 years off lifespan, expert says

This past winter Beijing has seen some of the worst air pollution since the government promised more "blue sky" days after the 2008 Olympic Games. NBC's Adrienne Mong reports.

BEIJING — Earlier this month, a U.S. study on the economic impact of China’s air pollution was released with little fanfare. Maybe it was because of the series of successive “blue sky” days we were enjoying in the Chinese capital, thanks to the gusty winds blowing down from Mongolia. 

The study, which was conducted by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, breaks down costs that result from the health impacts from ozone and particulate matter, which typically lead to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

The conclusion? “[D]espite improvements in overall air quality,” the cost of air pollution (as in lost economic productivity growth) in China has mushroomed from $22 billion in 1975 to $112 billion in 1995. But for at least one pair of 29-year old software engineers in Beijing, air pollution has actually meant greater economic productivity and a business opportunity.

A killer app
Wang Jun and Zhang Bin each moved to Beijing in 2001 to attend college.  Zhang, a Fujian native, was a math major at Beijing University while Wang left Inner Mongolia to study traffic infrastructure at Jiaotong University.

They met at a high-tech company, where for three years they worked together. Last year, they decided to strike out on their own and set up Fresh Ideas Studio.

“The primary aim … is creating mobile apps for solving practical problems in our daily lives,” Wang said, on a blustery (but sunny) afternoon at a coffee shop.

Last year saw some of the worst air pollution in Beijing since the 2008 Summer Olympics, spurring intense discussion among Chinese residents, teeth-gnashing among Western expats, and a near-diplomatic spat between the U.S. and China over fine particulate matter in the air known as PM2.5 that can wreak havoc on the respiratory system.

“Recently, the media and Weibo [a popular Chinese microblog like Twitter] users are very concerned about air quality, especially in Beijing,” Wang said.

In particular, there was a lot of online chatter about @Beijing Air, the U.S. embassy Twitter account that posts hourly Air Quality Index(AQI) data. 

The readings come from an air quality monitor that sits on top of the embassy in downtown Beijing, and they differ sharply from the daily results posted by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP).

Fresh Ideas Studios

The 2.0 version of Fresh Ideas Studio's app shows both U.S. and Chinese air quality readings.

AQI values on @BeijingAir range from 0 to 500.  A “good” AQI  is 0 to 50 or what the Chinese call a “blue sky” day.  Unfortunately, many days in 2011 qualified as “unhealthy” to “hazardous.”  But on some of those same days, MEP data maintained the levels were “good” or “moderate.”  (The Chinese, in fact, claim there were 286 "blue sky" days in 2011.)

“The [Beijing] government says that nearly 80 percent of the days in the last two years met at least the Chinese standard and therefore had good or even excellent air quality,” Steve Andrews, an environmental consultant who has analyzed the @BeijingAir data, said. “While when we look at the U.S. Embassy data … over 80 percent days exceeded what would be considered healthy air quality and more days were hazardous than good.”

Andrews said that Beijing's pollution levels were "six or seven times higher than the U.S.'s most polluted city." "Air pollution at these levels likely shortens life expectancy by about five years," he added.

The discrepancy was due to the fact the U.S. embassy monitor includes PM2.5, a fine particulate matter measuring 2.5 micrometers in diameter that, according to the EPA, “pose the greatest health risks [and] can lodge deeply into the lungs.”

The Chinese data, however, only measured the much coarser PM10 particles.

Adrienne Mong

Zhang Bin (left) and Wang Jun watch NBC News cameraman David Lom set up for an interview.

“I’m a Twitter user and saw many Tweets about [@BeijingAir],” Zhang said. “Many Weibo users reposted the data, too.”

The software developers decided to try creating a smartphone application that based itself on the @BeijingAir data.

“Sometimes we can tell there’s a gap between what we feel and the data from the government,” Wang said.  “This is probably why many prefer the data provided by the U.S. embassy.”

In November, they released a 1.0 version, available only in Chinese and which came with simple but appealing graphics.  On good AQI days, the screen background was light and featured a hiking boot, indicating it was time to be outdoors. On bad AQI days, the screen background turned dark, an X marked the boot, and a person’s face wrapped in a mask would pop up.

There were iOS and Android versions of the app. Within weeks, it had been downloaded 80,000 times. At least half of those users checked the app regularly, according to Wang. 

Pollution 'ignored' in past
Under popular pressure that has been building since last year, Chinese environment authorities in Beijing have agreed to publish PM2.5 data. But they maintain the air quality has improved steadily in recent years. 

“We may have had bad pollution in the past, but people probably didn’t pay too much attention to it before so it was just ignored,” said An Xinxin, who works in the Automatic Monitoring Office at the Beijing Environmental Protection Monitoring Center. 

The Center relies on anywhere from 30 to 40 monitoring stations. “Almost every district and county in Beijing has its own station,” explained An. “So citizens in every district and county can know what the pollution in their own area is like.”

Like many of his colleagues at the municipal level, An pointed out that the U.S. embassy only uses one monitor. “[It] can only represent one spot at a certain time. Their spot might be very close to the road where there is a lot of vehicle exhaust, which causes a high level of PM2.5,” he said. “Our statistics are an average of Beijing as a whole, not just one spot.”

Zhang has lived in Beijing for more than ten years, but he said he’s not sure whether the air quality has improved or not. “I don’t know if it’s because now I pay more attention [because of the media and online discussion], or if it’s because the air quality has worsened,” he said. 

But he and Wang dreamed up the idea of incorporating both the Chinese and American data streams into their app.

On Monday this week, they introduced a 2.0 version that not only posts real-time data from the U.S. embassy in Beijing and U.S. consulates around China, it also includes data from the Chinese Ministry of Environment’s monitoring centers in 120 cities across the country.

Also available in English, the app has been downloaded nearly 5,000 times.

“We thought it was good to include both. In some cities, users might want alternative information,” Wang said. “If there were a third source for air pollution data, we’d probably include it in the app, too.”

They might also want to add Hong Kong to their list of cities.

This month, a local nongovernmental group said Hong Kong’s air is 20 per cent more deadly than the air in mainland China. 

Using data from Hong Kong’s own government and the World Health Organization, the Clean Air Network ranked Hong Kong ahead of mainland China, India, Vietnam, and Bangladesh for its high air pollution mortality rates.

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With additional reporting from Bo Gu and Ting Zhao.