Behind the Scenes in Beijing, TAMU Prof Studies Olympic Air

China has faced air problems for decades. The country's economy has exploded in recent years and so has its population, which now totals 1.3 billion, the largest in the world. Beijing, site of the 2008 Olympic Games, now has 16 million residents, and the quality of the air they and athletes and spectators are breathing is receiving worldwide attention. Among those studying the problem and trying to determine exactly what's in Beijing's air, is Renyi Zhang, Ph.D., a Texas A&M University professor of atmospheric sciences, who is participating in a project funded in part through the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

"We are looking at several factors, including studying the complex chemistry of the air in Beijing , looking at emission controls and their effectiveness, studying the surrounding air from other regions and how it can affect Beijing's air, and also to compare all of our findings with air quality in other cities we have examined, such as Mexico City and Houston," Zhang said. "We hope to know much more about the similarities and differences in the air in these cities, all of which have faced immense pollution problems for many years."

According to a World Health Organization study, on a typical day the pollution level in Beijing is five times over the limit considered "safe air." Another study shows that China contains 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities.

China has ordered numerous factories to shut down or be used only intermittently during the games, which run until Aug. 24, to try to limit air pollution in the area. Another step: ordering about one-half of the city's 3.3 million vehicles off the road during the games, allowing only cars with odd or even-numbered license plates on roads on alternate days until the games are over. China has also implemented new auto emission standards since March, with regulations that are similar to those used throughout Europe.

Zhang says the efforts are to be applauded, and that many people are not aware of the difficult circumstances that Beijing faces concerning air quality. "There are two main types of pollutants in the air in almost any city in the world--toxicants, the gaseous type, and particulate matter," he said. "Both types can be concerns for human health, and the Chinese government is doing everything possible to try and control the situation as best as it can, which is not easy."

He added, "One of the biggest problems is that there are other pollution sources in the region. So that means that much of the bad air can be transported from one area to another, and there's not much they can do about it. So it's not just a Beijing problem, it's a regional problem."

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