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Beijing’s Pollution a Contentious Foe for Olympic Athletes

August 4, 2008 at 6:35 PM EST
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Despite efforts to curb China's air pollution, a thick haze swept over Beijing Monday, just days before the Olympic Games begin. Betty Ann Bowser examines the country's pollution woes and the impact on athletes.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, another in our series of stories about the Olympics and China’s moment on the world stage. Tonight, Beijing’s problems with air pollution.

After several days of clearer skies, a thick haze covered the city today, just four days before the opening ceremonies. Health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser has our story. The Health Unit is a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: Smog has been a fact of life in Beijing for years. It’s so bad on some days that locals refer to it as “the fog.”

But even after the Chinese government spent $17 billion trying to clean it, and just days away from opening ceremonies, this is what the sky looks like much of the time.

On July 20th, the government banned half of the city’s 3 million cars from the streets, closed factories, and halted most construction, hoping it would reduce the levels of pollution.

KENNETH RAHN, University of Rhode Island: Nothing happened. Absolutely nothing happened. And then, two or three days later, the situation worsened, and the level of air pollution essentially doubled.

Kenneth Rahn is an atmospheric chemist who regularly travels to China to consult with officials on how to deal with air pollution.

KENNETH RAHN: This slide shows what a blue-sky day can be like in Beijing. If you look carefully down here, in this, we can see your shadow. You can see the shadows of the trees, and that qualifies it as a blue sky day.

Obviously, there’s no blue sky around. Maybe if you look straight up you can see something, but it’s not shown in this picture. The point is the blue-sky days do not automatically mean deep blue skies that we in the West are accustomed to.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So this would be considered a pretty good day for competition by the Chinese?

KENNETH RAHN: Maybe borderline, but still acceptable, yes.

Beijing's heavy air pollution

Kenneth Rahn
University of Rhode Island
Beijing is a very dry area, and it has a lot more particulate matter in its air than most cities do.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: A big part of China's problem stems from its rapid industrialization. Farm land has given way to factories that make cement and steel and spew pollutants. It burns more coal than any nation on Earth.

All this makes for a toxic mix. And what makes it worse is Beijing's location.

KENNETH RAHN: The three worst pollutants are: particulate matter, that's suspended particles, very fine particles; ozone; and nitrogen dioxide.

Beijing is a very dry area, and it has a lot more particulate matter in its air than most cities do. Beijing is right next to a big desert. Just over the mountains is the big Gobi Desert.

It's very dry. There's dust all over the place. And anytime you have a little whirlwind, for example, you see a little spout of dust flying up in the air. It can be quite strong.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the biggest problem right now is Beijing's summer weather patterns, which blow air pollution to the city from the southern industrialized provinces.

KENNETH RAHN: On the order of 70 percent of the material is coming from outside of the city, and this can mean far outside the city. It means at least the first ring of provinces to the south. We're talking about hundreds of miles away. And it is effectively impossible or extremely difficult to lower the emissions from those provinces.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So the pollution hovers over the city for days until a cold front from Mongolia comes down from the north and blows it out. Then, a few days later, more pollution from the southern provinces comes in and the whole cycle starts over again.

Many of the competing athletes are worried about this. U.S. Olympic mountain biker Adam Craig knows better than most what air pollution in Beijing can do to an endurance athlete.

ADAM CRAIG, USA Cycling: I've never had any experience even remotely close to what I had in Beijing last fall.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Last September, he was in the Chinese capital to compete in a series of pre-Olympic warm-up races.

ADAM CRAIG: It's like -- it's a weird bronchial spasm thing that I was getting, that just like -- whenever you tried to take enough breath to give your muscles that fuel of oxygen they need, your bronchioles just start spasming and you just like physically can't do it.

And it's like akin to drowning, or something, just not being able to take that full breath. And, you know, having your body really require that oxygen and not being able to get it is a pretty unique and pretty terrifying situation, I think.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Just 30 minutes after the starting gun of the race, Craig had to quit, but he had lots of world-class company.

ADAM CRAIG: The current world champion and the current Olympic champion, Julien Absalon, same deal, about the same point in the race, 20 or 30 minutes in, actually was sick to his stomach, and threw up, and was hacking, and wheezing, and had to pull out.

And, yes, I think there were 46 starters and eight finishers. So that's a pretty high attrition rate for a two-hour mountain bike race around a fairly easy course.

Damaging effects of polluted air

Dr. David Christiani
Harvard School of Public Health
Even a healthy, high-performance athlete in much better physical condition than the rest of us ... can start to develop phlegm from inflammation from days or weeks of working out, and it can significantly decrease their performance.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. David Christiani is the professor of occupational medicine and epidemiology at Harvard's School of Public Health. He visits China twice a year for research on smog.

DR. DAVID CHRISTIANI, Harvard School of Public Health: Exposure to high levels of toxicants, like that in the air of Beijing, the initial response will be for these tubes to constrict, to go into spasms.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: With a model of a lung, he showed us what happens when you inhale polluted air.

DR. DAVID CHRISTIANI: Even a healthy, high-performance athlete in much better physical condition than the rest of us can experience immediately or in the short term this bronchospasm, can start to develop phlegm from inflammation from days or weeks of working out, and it can significantly decrease their performance.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That's why Ethiopia's long-distance gold medalist and world record holder Haile Gebrselassie decided not to compete in his event, the 26-mile-long marathon.

HAILE GEBRSELASSIE, Ethiopian Olympic Team: I don't compete the marathon, because -- yes, it's already I decide.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Because he has exercise-induced asthma, Gebrselassie chose instead to run the shorter 10,000 meters. He's disappointed he had to make that call.

HAILE GEBRSELASSIE: I want to compete in only the marathon, because the marathon is something very important for me, for my country. The people of Ethiopia, they love, you know, just to see someone to win in a marathon in one of those Olympics.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Christiani says Gebrselassie did the right thing.

DR. DAVID CHRISTIANI: He made a good decision, because he's particularly susceptible to not just having lower performance -- a longer time, off by minutes or seconds in the marathon -- but he's at risk for having -- precipitating an acute asthma attack that could really severely adversely affect his health.

Preparing for a worst-case scenario

Randy Wilber
Physiologist, U.S. Olympic Committee
The best strategy is the alternate training site. Stay away from it; do not expose yourself to it to avoid a cumulative negative effect.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Could it be life-threatening?

DR. DAVID CHRISTIANI: Potentially, yes, but even short of life- threatening, he could end up in the hospital and quite sick.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Randy Wilber is the lead exercise physiologist for the United States Olympic Committee.

RANDY WILBER, Physiologist, U.S. Olympic Committee: Beijing is certainly a significant challenge in terms of all of the issues that we face to try to help our athletes perform optimally.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: He's training the athletes to deal with Beijing's heat and humidity but says there's no way to prepare them for bad air.

RANDY WILBER: You cannot physiologically, but you can get them prepared for a worst-case scenario. The best strategy is the alternate training site. Stay away from it; do not expose yourself to it to avoid a cumulative negative effect.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So, in these days leading up to Beijing, U.S. Olympic athletes are living and training far from the Chinese capital. The USA track and field teams are 300 miles away in the Chinese city of Dalian.

And nearly 3,000 miles from Beijing, Singapore, is where the USA swimming and modern pentathlon teams are getting ready. Adam Craig and his U.S. mountain biking team are 600 miles away in South Korea.

ADAM CRAIG: We're going to go check in at the Olympic Village and then get out of Beijing. And we're going to come a day or two before the event, practice the course, get back out of Beijing again, and then just come the day of the event, compete in the event, and then leave.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The U.S. Olympic Committee says it will have face masks available for the 596 U.S. athletes competing in Beijing if they want to wear them, but Dr. Christiani says they won't do much good.

DR. DAVID CHRISTIANI: There's just no way they can compete with them on, so it's not effective. In between events, if they try to wear them, it will also, I think, not be particularly effective.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: For the next few weeks, the world will be focused on the games. But when all the athletes go home and the crowds disperse, 17.4 million people will still be living in China with long-term consequences from air pollution.

DR. DAVID CHRISTIANI: You get chronic bronchitis, asthma, aggravation of asthma, scarring of the lung. And, interestingly enough, not only is the lung affected, but those same pollutants, when they deposit in these areas and cause those responses like inflammation, also get in the bloodstream.

Heart disease can be accelerated with air pollution. Other conditions, such as stroke and peripheral vascular disease, are accelerated by chronic exposures.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Last week, the Chinese government banned all construction in Beijing, another 10 percent of the city's private cars from the streets, and said it would take more drastic measures if necessary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Scientist Kenneth Rahn is taking your questions on China's pollution problems in an Online Forum. To participate, visit us at PBS.org.