China to tighten control of smog data

A traffic policeman working in heavy smog in Anhui province, China, on Sunday. The establishment of a national network to monitor air pollution levels coincides with government efforts to suppress reports about the country's choking pollution which a
A traffic policeman working in heavy smog in Anhui province, China, on Sunday. The establishment of a national network to monitor air pollution levels coincides with government efforts to suppress reports about the country's choking pollution which afflicts most major cities.PHOTO: REUTERS

It creates national network to track pollution amid rising public anger over toxic air quality

BEIJING • China has established a single network to monitor air pollution levels across the country, as the government attempts to control the spread of information about the country's toxic smog in response to rising public anger.

The announcement follows instructions from the national Meteorological Administration last month ordering local meteorological bureaus to stop issuing haze alerts, raising suspicions that the government was attempting to suppress information about the chronic problem.

Until now, data has, in large part, been manually compiled from local stations. But the national network will now track pollutants using a combination of manual sampling stations, satellite sensing and airborne platforms, the People's Daily newspaper reported on Tuesday.

"Though data collected by ground base stations can be manually forged, real-time satellite data cannot be changed," Dr He Kebin, a professor at the Division of Air Pollution Control at Tsinghua University, told the paper.

The initiative aims to accelerate pollution reduction and eliminate falsified data. In October last year, environmental protection officials in Shaanxi province were caught tampering with air quality monitoring equipment to produce fraudulent numbers.

Measures of PM 2.5 fine particles in Chinese cities regularly exceed the World Health Organisation's recommended safe limit of 25 micrograms per cubic metre of air, often by as much as 10 times.

The network's creation coincides with government efforts to suppress reports about the country's choking pollution which afflicts most major cities. According to China Digital Times, the authorities this week directed all Chinese websites to "find and delete" a two-year-old story from The Paper, a Shanghai-based digital news website, about pollution's health risks.

Yesterday, a link to the story was being circulated on Chinese social media, but clicking on it redirected users to a page saying it was "already offline". The piece cited a Peking University study finding that particulate matter (PM) 2.5 atmospheric pollution caused 257,000 "excess deaths" - referring to the number of people who would have survived were it not for such severe pollution - in 31 Chinese cities.

PM2.5 fine particles are a major pollutant in smoke haze. They are of concern because they are smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter. Due to their size, the human body is unable to filter them out. They are linked to higher rates of chronic bronchitis, lung cancer and heart disease. Measures of the toxin in Chinese cities regularly exceed the World Health Organisation's recommended safe limit of 25 micrograms per cubic metre of air, often by as much as 10 times.

The study contradicts a statement made last month by a National Health and Family Planning Commission official, who told the Economic Daily that "it is too early to make conclusions about the health consequences of smog, particularly long-term".

While national pollution levels have been falling over the past few years, heavy smog this winter has brought renewed urgency to the issue. The Chinese government has tried to quieten some of the public reaction. Last month, a 29-year-old Chengdu man was detained for five days by local police after he allegedly spread rumours about the smog levels, the Chengdu Commercial Daily reported.

Meanwhile, Beijing plans to slash coal consumption by a further 30 per cent this year, as part of its efforts to combat air pollution. The capital city would also take 300,000 obsolete vehicles off the roads this year to help raise fuel standards and promote new energy cars.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 09, 2017, with the headline 'China to tighten control of smog data'. Print Edition | Subscribe