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Environment

Beijing Airpocalypse Redux

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This animation consists of two satellite images of the Beijing region, one captured on Oct. 16 under clear conditions, the other on Oct. 18 when air pollution had skyrocketed. Beijing is in the upper center of the image, nestled against the mountains. (Images: NASA. Animation: Tom Yulsman) On Friday (Oct. 18), the air quality index in Beijing skyrocketed to a high reading of 352 — a level so hazardous it's considered a health emergency. True, it wasn't nearly as bad as the so-called "Beijing airpocalypse" last January, when the AQI shot straight right off the charts to 755. But air pollution in the Chinese capital is consistently so bad, especially in winter with widespread use of coal for heating, that on Thursday the city government issued a mitigation plan titled Six Stops and One Wash. The plan consists of a series of steps, phased in as the severity of the situation warrants. The steps include street washing to hold down dust, closure of factories, construction work stoppages, banning of barbecues, and restrictions on driving. The images in the animation above, acquired by NASA's Aqua satellite, dramatize just how bad things got. For part of the afternoon on Thursday, Oct. 16, air pollution was in the "moderate" range. This meant the city was clearly visible from space. You can easily make out Beijing at the upper-center part of the clear image. But toward the end of the day, conditions deteriorated. And by Friday, they had gotten particularly bad, as is evident in the second image of the animation. For jazz singer Patty Austin, it seems to have triggered an asthma attack so bad that she was forced to cancel a performance scheduled for the Forbidden City Concert Hall on Friday night. As the pall of smog was obscuring the Chinese capitol on Thursday, the World Health Organization announced that it was classifying outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans. In a prepared statement, Kurt Straif of WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer had this to say:

“The air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances . . . We now know that outdoor air pollution is not only a major risk to health in general, but also a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.”

The most recent data indicate that in 2010, 223,000 people died of lung cancer worldwide resulting from air pollution, according to WHO.

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