SciTechBlog   « Back to Blog Main
August 7, 2008

Beijing: Seeing, and smelling, a "good" air day

Posted: 11:48 AM ET

I laughed when I heard that the International Olympic Committee said that air quality in Beijing is not a problem. Well, I’m not a meteorologist but if I stick my head out the window and it gets wet I know rain is in the forecast. I’m also not an air quality expert but when I look out my 11th floor window each morning, I can see the smog smothering the nearby buildings.

An building in a murky Beijing on the eve of the Olympics

A building in a murky Beijing on the eve of the Olympics

I am amazed by the amount of gray choking the city. I swear I can’t see a quarter-mile. And at times there is a smell surrounding me that reminds me of a bus station.

As I said, I’m not keen to the science of the whole thing but our colleague at Sports Illustrated, David Epstein, has written on the smog in Beijing, and he explains why the conditions may last for a while.

The IOC laid some of the blame for the grey air on the humidity. But I have been here since Monday night and only once have I felt really uncomfortable (and I live in Atlanta, Georgia). That was the day we went to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and I was soaking wet after a few hours.

I’ve only seen two people wearing masks to cover their mouths – two members of the cleaning crew at one of the temples. I have been tempted to ask our guide if people are intentionally suffering to give visitors a better impression of their city.

It is the worst smog that I have ever experienced. Atlanta, which has some air quality issues, has never seen anything even close to this.

Now mom, don’t worry. I’m not constantly coughing, and my eyes are fine.

- Steve Almasy,

Filed under: environment • Weather

Share this on:
HH   August 7th, 2008 12:23 pm ET

Steve, I am so glad that you can provide an accurate account of the pollution. All those so-called experts with their fancy degrees and equipment can't beat the experience of living 4 whole days in that abominable environment. After all, this is the SciTechBlog, and firsthand observations based on human faculties completely unbiased by “training” surely get us closest to the truth. I am especially delighted that finally a respected American journalist has hit up on the mask scam. Discussions about this were wide-spread on the Chinese internet forums back in May, but all of the posts have been deleted since then. Masks were prevalent in pictures of Chinese street scenes in the 1980s, but since then, they have become exceedingly rare. Did the pollution improve? Of course not. What instead happened was that the Chinese government started imposing relatively massive fines if anyone is caught wearing a mask. In Shanghai for example, fines were 25 yuan in the 1990s and 60 yuan the last time I checked. For major events, such as the Olympics and ASEAN meetings, the fines are doubled. Bravo Steve for bringing this to light.

Will   August 7th, 2008 12:42 pm ET

Last year I was in Shanghai which is supposed to have much better air quality than Beijing and it was grey all the time. I wen running one evening after a quick rain storm and when I stopped I started coughing and it looked like I had just been smoking a cigarette and was coughing the smoke out. I truly feel for these athletes that have to compete in those conditions.

Joseph   August 7th, 2008 12:57 pm ET

Ok, how about you try to convince the IOC to change their plans now and move the Olympics elsewhere? Writing this article is fruitless, I'm not sure what exactly you're trying to accomplish, and does only to demonstrate your own lack of tolerance.

What I derived from your article:

The humidity does NOTHING to contribute to the grey air. You are ignorant.

People should be wearing masks! ...ever think that perhaps the people there are used to it. Not everyone feels air needs to be 'clean' to breathe.

Why are you comparing Atlanta to the most densely populated city in the largest populated country?

Try putting yourself in a different perspective once in a while. You might change your 'unbiased' view, as HH put it, who I believe is only jumping on the 'hate China' bandwagon.

quanyin04 Julie E.   August 7th, 2008 12:59 pm ET

When we were in China in Changsha, I was amazed that no matter what the weather, we always saw gray skies and smog so thick it made it difficult to see very far. Even on Shamian Island in Guangzhou – it was fairly clear, but still smoggy over much of the city (we saw how bad it was from our 10th floor at the White Swan – and were amazed at how much pollution was in the air).

I am also amazed that with so much pollution, Changsha seemed to have its own "weather pattern". One day it would be in the 50's, raining and windy, the next it would be in the mid-80's and muggy. It would go from one extreme to the next.

The pollution is one reason why I would not want to live and work in China (among others). It's too bad, because I'd love to raise our daughter in China so she could get to know her birth culture better.

I think China is quite naive to believe that they can clear up their pollution for the Olympics with the idea that they'll shut certain factories or pollutants down for awhile, or only have certain cars on the road for certain days. The pollution will still hang in the air like a heavy blanket.

Joseph   August 7th, 2008 1:02 pm ET


Just because you're in terrible shape and can't run a little doesn't mean the athletes can't. Don't overestimate yourself. I myself went to Shanghai last year, and I sure didn't have this problem, I wonder why that could be?

Also where are you even getting this 'supposed' information of better air quality in Shanghai than Beijing? Shanghai is nearly equivalent if not more polluted then Beijing. You people exaggerate to such an extent that I feel embarrassed and ashamed to be American.

DK   August 7th, 2008 1:41 pm ET

I just returned from Beijing. The smog was awful. I live 9 miles from Atlanta and can see the skyline clearly even during hot humid August days. In Beijing, I could see the smog a hundred yards away. Frequently, the skyline is almost completely obscured. Last week, while I was there, the China Daily reported improved air quality. However, anyone looking (and tasting) the air could tell you different.

kelly   August 7th, 2008 1:47 pm ET

How 'amazing' some of the people shot down scientific data and facts? can human eyes distinguish sub-micron particular matter from droplets in a similar size? why does EPA have all these pollution standards, and collecting data on a daily basis? vision can be deceitful, but data don't lie. FYI, it takes years of studying and training for those the 'so-called' experts to get their fancy degrees. at least show some respect

Frankie   August 7th, 2008 2:35 pm ET

I have just returned after spending 6 WEEKS in Asia and I can tell you that the pollution really doesn't bother me. Yeah when I blew my nose my snot was black sometimes, but never did I feel choked or feel that my health was in danger...and this is before many of these measures were put into effect to reduce the pollution. While there I was able to talk to countless people and the air quality was one topic that always came up. Not once did anybody even think of wearing a mask, they just don't think it is neccessary. For everybody that is freaking out about the pollution it is a problem, but not one that the government is going to be able to reverse in such a short period. If they were so concerned about air quality it is something that they should have been spending years to improve. Oh and HH, the environment there is not abominable as you say, try living there for weeks or years and it really doesn't even bother you anymore.

S Callahan   August 7th, 2008 2:40 pm ET

I can't breathe just reading the comments......

Seriously, air quality throughout the whole world is questionable with and without visible smog. The ammount of cases for asthma in the USA alone is staggering; along with chronic lung diseases non realted to smoking.
This story is another reason we need new energy alternatives to manage our way of life; In my view we marginnally handle enviromental management through governemnts and big, private, buisnesses (not mentioning names)...more needs to be done.

kelly   August 7th, 2008 3:20 pm ET

After reading more comments posted here, I feel the need to give some basics on this subject I learned in school (thanks to my professors :)).

first, both fog and smog can impede visibility in urban environment; it's not your fault that you can't tell between them, but keep in mind, usually, smog looks brownish, because of the light reflection by soot.

secondly, most of the PM2.5 pollution can be cleared up in a week or so from the atmosphere due to their short life time, given no further emissions; PM10 particles have even shorter residence time. Therefore, the emergency measures taken by Beijing should work for a short time.

Finally, it is more of a challenge to mitigate greenhouse gases, since they have longer atmospheric lifetime in decades. Their impact is on the long-term temperature trend. What you experience in the daily life could be natural fluctuations, but with hidden signal of climate change.

Kerry Green   August 7th, 2008 3:32 pm ET

I think that josheph and kelly are chinese spys trying to make us feel better about the horrible pollution, well its pretty nasty there... it just is

kelly   August 7th, 2008 4:44 pm ET

LOL peace out...I am done

John   August 7th, 2008 5:15 pm ET

We were in Beijing 3 1/2 years ago and the pollution was unbelievable. Despite Joseph's ignorance, the air quality in Beijing is absolutely unbelievable. I have no special ax to grind (Joseph) against China. We were there to adopt a child sponsored by a wonderful branch of the Chinese government called CCAA (Chinese Center for Adoption Affairs). This has nothing to do (Joseph) with the facts: (1) The air quality is horrific and (2) The Olympic committee deciding on the sites is known to be terribly corrupt – witness the Salt Lake City games.

Denise   August 7th, 2008 5:19 pm ET

When I lived in Shanghai I sat by the pool reading one afternoon... when I got up off the towel there was a black body outline. Don't tell me the particle count is low or that the outline was caused by HUMIDITY.

And, yes, you can taste it.

Bill, N.M.   August 7th, 2008 9:06 pm ET

I have spent a lot of time in Beijing and the summers are the worst for smog. They should have held the winter olympics here.

Karen Robertson   August 7th, 2008 9:23 pm ET

Ack, I have lived in Beijing for almost five years, and the air this year is horrible. The last two years were better, but it is worse this year. I keep reading where the air counts are better, but of course like everything here, it depends on how you spin it. At the end of 2007, the authorities 'moved' two of their sensors used to gauge air quality from near the city center. One moved out near Badaling (northwest of the city in the mountains), and the other moved to Huairou (a resevoir with no industry around it). So, even if the air within the city is worse this year, they can proudly report it as better than last year. I am not a China basher, but don't tell me it is humidity when it isn't. Oh yeah, where can I get the BJ ozone readings?

JJ living in Greater China   August 7th, 2008 9:53 pm ET

Sat next to a 'pollution expert' on a flight from Hong Kong once. He said it is the stuff you can't see that will kill you most. Heavy particles, are big enough to possibly get caught in your lungs etc. Odorless and colorless pollution, goes deep inside your body and never comes out. So, you really can not judge pollution by "how it looks." Made a lot of sense to me. Was in Shanghai last year, the worst pollution I have ever seen. Made me sick. Most men there smoking cigs as well. There 'will be' an epidemic. No maybe about it.

JMaier, Fairbanks, Alaska   August 7th, 2008 10:05 pm ET

It was absolutely irresponsible, bordering on criminal, for the IOC to allow the Olympic games to be conducted in Beijing. I wish all of the athletes well and hope they won't have any long-lasting ill effects from being in this nasty polluted air. As for Olympic fans – we watch athletic events hoping to see athletes at their best giving awesome performances – we aren't going to get that from these Olympics. What a sham!

Christy   August 7th, 2008 10:39 pm ET

Well, I have lived in Beijing for two years now, and I can say honestly that the pollution is horrible, but slowly improving. Last weekend we had a couple of days of blue skies, which were truly wonderful to enjoy.

It is humid here, but I have also lived in Singapore for several years, which always has high humidity, and never once did I experience the low visibility there is here. I know what fog looks like, I have been to San Francisco, and even in my hometown in Georgia we get fog, and let me tell you that here in Beijing, we are experiencing SMOG.

I don't deny that certain pollutants probably have gone down, but there are still so many cars on the road, and still a number of factories that are open, so it isn't like it could have magically just gone away.

I don't have breathing problems here, but I know those who do. As for masks...I tried wearing one one day and it was awful! It looked back, was uncomfortable, and inconvenient for talking. I think most people feel the same.

Janice   August 7th, 2008 10:57 pm ET

I completely agree with HH. In this day and age, we cannot trust the experts. I would much rather believe Denise than someone with a Dr. in front of his/her name. The years of schooling and experience merely blind you to the truth. We can only depend on our own senses and those of other clear-headed Americans. If that fog looks like smog to you, then it most definitely is. Also, don't be fooled by machine readouts, no matter how purportedly sensitive. They are not as objective as what you perceive yourself.

Richard   August 8th, 2008 2:03 am ET

It is interesting to me to hear about the quality of air of a city that is hosting the Olympics. Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts.

I don't think this is a "hate China" post, as it is more the blog of someone who has been there and is providing their experience for others to read. It does seem strange to me that some of the responses are attacks to those that posted and commented. Those types of attacks are something that actually makes me ashamed to be an American.

Franko   August 8th, 2008 3:31 am ET

No longer Communist shades of Crimson and Red sunsets,
Centralized planning, for maximizied efficiency, Black or White Cat style ?
Both catch mice, Black Cat is efficient, suicide producers, cheap for US.

Matthew   August 8th, 2008 4:08 am ET

I traveled to Beijing and the Great Wall in July of 2004. Rather odd to be celebrating independence day and seeing images of the Macy's fireworks on from Beijing.
I remember the days were hot and sticky, a few times I was driven to buy a cheap replacement shirt at the touristy stops just so I give my old shirt a chance to dry out. This was especially the case when hiking the Great Wall.
In particular, the poor air quality does not stand out in my memory. I remember the view from the higher floors in the Landmark to be somewhat hazy, but so was the view in Kunsan, South Korea where I was living at the time. The view from a peak on the Great Wall was definitely hazy.
You say in your blog post that you are not a meteorologist. As luck would have it, I am. The humidy can add a bluish-gray hue to the air rather than the yellowish look of the smog in LA due to the scattering of the blue end of the visible spectrum.

bias   August 8th, 2008 4:53 am ET

It's true the air quality is very bad in Beijing, but considering the number of people living in downtown beijing and much less environment-friendly vehicles, it's still acceptable.

Ed   August 8th, 2008 5:01 am ET

Personally,I'm sick of hearing people talking about how hazy or how polluted China is. Deal with it, the IOC chose to have it in Beijing. China's worked hard to achieve a readiness in its given time.

I just came back from China, and it's true, while there for my 30-day trip, there were only 5 blue sky days. The situation has largely improved and the recent haze is due to some meteorological problems like the lack of wind and rain to clear the haze/smog.

And the worst part is that foreigners come into China with their little face masks and oxygen tanks. Any athletes want to run their 100meter race with those things on? People living in their countries don't wear facemasks in their own polluted environments–why start wearing them when they're in China...? Overhyped, over-dramatized. People and media grouping together everything they can find wrong (or things they hear) about China and group it together, including: "human rights issues" and pollution.

Roger   August 8th, 2008 9:41 am ET

I say we send Al Gore, he knows how to fix anything.   August 8th, 2008 1:16 pm ET

I've been to Beijing and the air quality is just amazingly bad. It always looked yellowish grey which could also have something to do with the nearby desert.

Cheap iPhones and iPods at

May   August 9th, 2008 2:13 am ET

You can find air polution in all big cities. The air in New York City is a lot of dirtier than the surberbs where I live. In hot summer afternoons, I drive on the highway to get to home. I could not help notice the smog hanging in the air. Yet, I am pretty sure the air pollution in the surberb is not bad at all. The smell of gaseline in the streets of London when I visited there in 2004 was quite impressive to me. I visited Beijing in the winter the next year. The air was no worse than London.

Brett   August 12th, 2008 4:57 pm ET

Good greif ... can you imagine if the Olympics were held in downtown New York? All you folks that say get a grip and it's just as bad as big cities in other parts of the world, the issue is that the Olympics would NEVER be held in any highly polluted US city nowadays (DON'T bring up cities of the past, we are smarter and more aware now) The only reason China got the Olympics in the first place was massive (and well known) payoffs of the IOC.


Didn't any of you read what HH said about the Chinese government imposing FINES on anyone who wore a mask during the big events! OMFG If that doesn't smack of a government trying to cover-up something then what does. Holy cow that's tantamount to torture, forcing citizens to breath toxic pollution, just to "save face".

Why aren't you all outraged at that?

George Wu   August 12th, 2008 8:34 pm ET

Air pollution is to be expected in a city expanding and developing at the rate of Beijing. The building projects here go on 24/7. This blog entry does nothing but feed into the political propaganda machine that's trying to taint the Beijing Olympics and China's pride.

ukusa   August 14th, 2008 12:51 pm ET

Yeah.....China's Pride before the fall. The government know what they are doing is wrong, and they also know that there will be consequences for ignoring the problem, but then why should they care.....Lifes cheap....They have billions of people to spare, so what if half of them drop dead from the long term effects of pollution. Less people to worry about, eh?

Red   August 14th, 2008 5:27 pm ET

The IOC has turned in to the left arm of the Chinese Communist party. Smog be damned. Who cares about the health of the Atheletes anyway.

Red   August 14th, 2008 5:29 pm ET

Folks keep forgetting that China is a communist regime. Everything from institunialozied doping, under age gymnast and lip synching singers are parts and parcels of a red nation. The east germans did it, the commie soviets did it, so why wonder if China did it? Of course they did. Get with the program.

Ching   August 14th, 2008 5:33 pm ET

You westerners are lying. The air in Beijing is very healthy. It is not smog that you see but your lense is dirty. The sky is clear blue and great Mao is shining on us. Long live China.

Franko   August 15th, 2008 1:08 am ET

Do pollution detecting canaries survive? That is the test of danger.
Police Dogs, trained in the countriside, able to track by scent ?,
Where is a site for the Pollution Index ?
Internet censoring, same as any dictatorship, without the Party, Prosperity.

Charley   August 15th, 2008 1:05 pm ET


Ae you nuts? Saying "Not everyone feels air needs to be ‘clean’ to breathe." is just stupid. Of course everyone should breath clean air...sometimes they have no choice! You went to Shanghai and I'll bet they were glad you left!

Can you please move there and clean up the gene pool for those of us left behind!

Observant Servant   August 15th, 2008 2:49 pm ET

It becomes completely obvious when you read only a few articles about the Olympics that China is a crazy place to be in.

All the lies about the pollutuion, the imprisonig of protesters, the Chinese Government's need to present themselves as better than they really are. Im talking about the scandal with the little girl that sung the chinese national anthem and didnt get any credit and the 3d animation that they added to the fireworks display.

The Chinese know that if we saw what real life was like we'd be appalled so they are taking all these measures to spruce things up.

And yeah we need to call out all these infiltrating spies like Kelly and Joseph for spreading their lies.........

samochody   January 4th, 2021 6:19 pm ET

Świetny post. Bardzo ciekawie opisany artykuł. Jak możesz sprawdź stronę o samochodach u mnie! Do zobaczenia!

cbd oil   January 6th, 2021 11:46 pm ET

I needed to create you one little remark to be able to say thanks a lot over again on the pleasing strategies you have provided in this case. It was really shockingly open-handed with you to make publicly precisely what many of us would've offered for an ebook to get some money for themselves, notably now that you might have tried it in case you desired. These solutions in addition served to be the good way to know that other people online have the identical interest really like my personal own to learn more and more related to this matter. I am sure there are numerous more pleasant periods in the future for many who read carefully your site.

best liver medications   February 22nd, 2021 4:47 am ET

Awsome article and right to the point. I don't know if this is truly the best place to ask but do you people have any ideea where to employ some professional writers? Thx 🙂 best liver medications

epilepsy meds   February 24th, 2021 12:50 am ET

fantastic submit, very informative. I'm wondering why the other experts of this sector do not understand this. You should continue your writing. I am sure, you have a huge readers' base already! epilepsy meds

Leave Your Comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

subscribe RSS Icon
About this blog

Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

subscribe RSS Icon
Powered by VIP