Bad Air in Beijing? Pollution Dangers Cast Shadow over 2008 Olympics
Is Beijing dangerous to athletes' health? With the prospect of athletes running marathons and cycling in Beijing's smog and pollution-laden air, environmentalists and experts in sports medicine are concerned about the health risks associated with the Olympic Games in China.
The Beijing smog feeds on itself. Whenever the city periodically disappears into a brownish-yellow haze, the traffic only gets worse. Those who are fortunate enough to own a car leave their bicycles at home, choosing air-conditioning over the unfiltered cocktail of coal smoke, particulate matter and ozone in the air.
The fine dust stems mainly from coal power plants and factories, while vehicle exhaust gases are responsible for the ozone. The city's constant traffic jams have reduced the average speed of the cars on its streets from 45 kilometers per hour (28 miles per hour) in the past to only 12 today. Adding to the problem, more than 1,000 new cars are registered each day.
Even healthy visitors often complain of sore throats, allergic reactions and asthma. In China's 14 largest cities alone, air pollution is responsible for the deaths of 50,000 newborns each year, writes the Shanghai Star newspaper. "If you exercise," advises Ibrahim Salahat of the International Medical Center in Beijing, "you should do it inside."
Trouble for Runners, Cyclists
Children, the chronically ill, the elderly and endurance athletes like marathon runners and cyclists face the greatest risk. Endurance athletes spend hours performing at peak levels in the open air, inhaling up to 150 liters of air a minute -- more than 10 times as much as a sedentary office worker. Ozone and fine dust can cause inflammation that requires treatment with asthma and anti-inflammatory drugs. "Most symptoms subside after 24 hours," says Frank Kelly, an environmental scientist at King's College in London, "but the long-term consequential damage is still poorly researched."
"I wouldn't expect a world record in the marathon in Beijing," says Marco Cardinale, a doctor who advises the British Olympic Committee. "The issue isn't just air quality, but the combination of heat, humidity and bad air." Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), does his best to downplay the problem. He argues that Beijing isn't the first Olympic host city with environmental problems. Athens (2004), Los Angeles (1984) and Mexico City (1968) aren't exactly known for their pristine air.
But information about which athletes will end up gasping for air at which pollution levels seems to be a carefully guarded secret. Neither trainers nor officials are especially interested in divulging the details, and much of the available information is anecdotal.
For example, says Randy Wilber, a manager of the US Olympic team, more than 20 percent of US athletes reacted to the smog in Athens with breathing difficulties. In Los Angeles, British runner Steve Ovett collapsed with respiratory problems after the 800-meter race. Ovett is convinced that pollution was the culprit. "Many suffered from the bad air, but hardly anyone said anything," Ovett complained in an article in the scientific journal Nature.
The notion that bad air is harmful to athletes' lungs was demonstrated as far back as 1904 during the Olympic marathon in St. Louis. Only 14 of 32 competitors were able to complete the course through the city's dusty streets, running between cars and horse-drawn carriages. Thirteen kilometers (eight miles) shy of the finish line, American runner William Garcia collapsed and almost died of a gastric hemorrhage -- he had swallowed too much road dust.
The 'Green Games'
Nevertheless, Beijing's city government steadfastly believes in its "Green Games." It plans to invest 2.5 billion ($3.36 billion) in improving the city's air by the time the Olympic games begin. Heating in many households has already been converted from coal to natural gas, and a Beijing steel mill is currently being relocated to an outlying area.
And yet the city government remains confident, even issuing periodic progress reports on its supposed successes. For example, Beijing's government claims, it has managed to increase the number of "blue sky days" -- when smog levels are lower than normal -- to about 240 a year.
Of course, many Beijing residents can only chuckle asthmatically when confronted with such figures.
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2007
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH