China tries to clear air about Beijing's haze

The haze that stubbornly cloaks China's capital in the run-up to the Summer Olympics looks worse than it really is, two senior officials asserted Saturday.

The officials referred to the gray haze over the city as “fog” and “dust” but refrained from calling it air pollution.

A daily air pollution index in China's capital has actually gotten worse in the week since city officials ordered more than 1 million cars off the streets and staggered office hours as part of an unprecedented anti-pollution campaign to clear the air for the Aug. 8-24 Olympics.

For the three most recent of the past seven days, Beijing has tallied air pollution levels above 100 on an index, meaning air quality is “unhealthy” for children or senior citizens.

Du Shaozhong, deputy director of the city's Environmental Protection Bureau, said at a news conference that observers should not rely on the visual appearance of the sky, or make judgments from photographs, in assessing whether Beijing is making headway in fighting air pollution.

“You should not rely on photos,” Du said, chastising the British Broadcasting Corp., for publishing photos on its Web site showing dismal haze in Beijing this month.

At a news conference, Du offered blanket assurances that air quality would meet standards of the International Olympic Committee for the upcoming competition.

“We can guarantee good air quality during the Games,” Du said.

The assertions brought skeptical questions from several foreign journalists arriving in the city of 16 million people to cover the Olympics.

Noting that China has erected striking architectural buildings to showcase its economic rise for the Games, one Australian reporter asked Du “will we be able to see them” through the haze?

Du suggested that much of the visibility problem was moisture in the air, and could be likened to looking through steam “while taking a bath in the bathroom.”

“It's not necessarily pollution,” he said.

Guo Hu, director of the Beijing Meteorological Observatory, agreed that recent rainy weather has reduced visibility in the city.

“Since late June, we've had many days of light fog, with water vapor in the air,” Guo said. “Sometimes visibility is not so good.”

Beijing has spent $17 billion in recent years to clean its air quality, shutting down or moving coal-fired power plants, relocating steel mills and taking other steps. It has succeeded in reducing some pollutants levels of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, but levels of microscopic particulates suspended in the air remain stubbornly high.

Beijing uses different criteria for judging air quality than is accepted in many parts of the world. It terms as “optimal” and a “blue sky day” any day where the air pollution index falls below 100, deemed fairly good even if the sun remains blurry through haze.

Since last Sunday, Beijing has limited vehicles on city roads to an odd-even system depending on their final license plate numbers. The restrictions will last two months.

IOC Chairman Jacques Rogge warned last year that some Olympic events involving endurance, such as the marathon, might be suspended for a day or two if air quality is poor.