Beijing Olympians' Health vs. Air Pollution///by Stephen Fox, Managing Editor, Santa Fe Sun News
I must make it really clear right off the bat that I have always been contemptuous of Beijing holding the Olympics because of my knowledge of the genocidal toll on the Tibetans that China has exacted since 1949 in which almost 20% of the Tibetan population was killed by Chinese genocidal thugs at the top levels of government. One of these genocidal thugs, Hu Jin Tao, became China's President, having orchestrated the 1992 "crackdown" in Lhasa.
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I have so many Tibetan friends that by osmosis, I have come to look at
everything China does and say with skepticism, and sometimes, with outright
hostility, much as traumatized European Jews continue to be angry with the
National Socialist master-race genocidal ideologies and actions for having
propagandized the commission of their ancestors' murders in concentration
camps, as if 70 years later, Berlin were chosen to be a center for the study
and practice of International Law.
China has epic ghastly pollution: the air, the water, and the very food it
exports. Regattas for sailing and yachting in the Olympics are supposed to
take place in waterways that are now totally choked with algae resulting
from massive chemical pollution, and thousands including military have been
conscripted into algae cleaning efforts.
No pet owner has forgotten the Chinese melamine that made its way into American pet food, killing thousands of US pets last year, and the Chinese fake glycerine-in-actuality-ethylene-glycol into toothpaste which killed hundreds in Central America, particularly in Panama.
Aside from whether China DESERVED to be given the hosting of the Olympics in
2008, at this point a moot question, the karmic stains from the Tibetan and
Uighur genocides upon China remain as vivid and as nauseating to the very
few who are conscious of such things, as the stains on our own nation vis-a-
vis our atrocities in much of the Middle East, which will go on and on in
their impacts for decades into the future in most of the Islamic World,
which, don't forget, includes at least 40% of Africa.
I wrote as early as 2002 to His Holiness the Dalai Lama recommending that
Tibetans protest the Beijing Olympics to bring attention to the genocide of
the Tibetan People, their perhaps last chance to address these matter,
advice which some Tibetans have taken quite seriously.
I write this today hoping for a sense of reconciliation towards most of the
world that we have alienated in the past 8 years with the Bushies and the
Neocons, but I also am deeply concerned for the athletes' health going to
Beijing. I regretfully predict that several will die there, not from
terrorists due to the massive security paranoia in the Chinese authorities,
but from plain old air pollution, especially in runners and cyclists doing
long distances in that infernal smog.
[Thanks to the Wharton School]
Runners gagged as they limbered up and smog engulfed Hong Kong's Tsing Ma
Bridge. Pollution index readings on this morning in February 2006 were at
149, and any reading over 100 is unhealthy, yet 40,000 runners in China's
Hong Kong Standard Chartered Marathon, were unaware of the coming tragedy.
Later that day,Tsang Kam-yin, 53, a three-time marathoner, collapsed and
died; 20 runners would be hospitalized, many for respiratory ailments and
asthma attacks. "Everyone who took part in the marathon was at risk of harm
to their health from pollution," wrote Anthony Hedley, of Hong Kong
University's department of Community Medicine, upbraiding the oblivious
Wharton's professor Z. John Zhang, has called the Beijing Olympics a "coming-
out" party for the world's most populous nation. Governments are investing
billions in sports venues like the Bird's Nest in Beijing, the stadium under
construction; subway-line extensions, etc., to make the games a world-class
spectacle. Yet I predict that the air pollution will crash the Olympic party
and focus world attention on environmental problems. China has good cause to
worry about its image. The government tried to transform Beijing into some
phney Chinese "Beacon of Greenism."
Sun Weide, deputy director of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the
Games, recently described the effort to bring Beijing's air pollution into
line with global standards. The city has relocated more than 100 chemical,
steel and pharmaceutical factories outside the city and replace 300,000
polluting taxis and buses with less-polluting vehicles and to replace coal
furnaces with natural gas, rushing builders to finish construction before
games so that dust from the building projects has a chance to settle, plus
four new subway lines.
In 1998, Beijing recorded only 100 "Blue Sky" days with acceptable pollution
and by 2005, the capital had 244 Blue Sky days. "We will meet air quality
standards of the Chinese government and most cities of the world," he said.
A cleaner capital could be the legacy of the 2008 event, but at the expense
of the athletes' health? China needs much, much more than a quick-fix for
its broader environmental crisis stemming from its weak legal system,
corruption, poverty, two decades of double-digit industrial growth putting
job growth ahead of the environment, and Communist propaganda that promoted
man's ability to conquer nature, rather than work in harmony with nature.
Meanwhile, factories spew toxins and particulates into the air, and rivers
are choked with sewage. Acidification has spread to 30% of China's cropland,
and the Georgia Institute of Technology reports that the range of ozone
exposure in agricultural regions in the Yangtze River Delta is enough to
reduce yields by 10%. In Southern Guanxi Province, 92% of the sewage from
the province's cities flows into rivers, but installing treatment plants
would cost $400 million in an area where yearly income is about $1,500 to
According to the World Bank, 16 cities in the world with the worst air
pollution are located in China. The country's Ministry of Science and
Technology has estimated that 50,000 newborn babies a year die from the
effects of air pollution. Tens of thousands of factories in the Pearl River
Delta, an area where U.S. retailers like Wal-Mart source products for
stores, are blamed for polluting Hong Kong.
Chemical spills have flowed into eastern Russia, contaminating Russian
drinking water, and Chinese pollution has been detected on California's
coast. Reliant on coal, China's emissions of carbon dioxide, the global
warming gas, are expected to surpass the USA'S in 2009.
Pan Yue, vice minister of China's State Environmental Protection, wrote in
November 2006 in the Wall Street Journal:
"China is dangerously near a crisis point" with its environment. A third of
China's people drink substandard water and a third breathe badly polluted
air, according to Pan. "True, China has made the kind of economic advances
in three decades that required 100 years in Western countries. But China has
also suffered a century's worth of environmental damage in 30 years."
Eric Orts, also a professor at Wharton, says that pollution will likely drag
down China's economic growth and result in huge health-care costs; China's
pollution will erode its competitive position in the global economy. "If you
want to be an international player, you have to be a place where executives
can come and live and not worry about their kids getting lung cancer."
One obstacle is a weak legal system: without economic damages from civil
lawsuits, pollution controls go nowhere, as there is no outside legal
mechanism to punish polluters. "Mao basically killed or reeducated most of
the lawyers and judges. There was a whole generation wiped out by the
Cultural Revolution." Enforcing environmental laws works against local
government's economic interests. "The system is corrupt and there are no
lawyers who can bring a basic lawsuit," Orts notes. Further, China never
developed anything like Greenpeace or the Sierra Club, forces for cleaner
environmental movements around the world. The central government cracks down
on non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, "because it's not part of their
view of how society develops." The Chinese government is boosting its
investments in the legal system, says Orts. The clean-up effort related to
the 2008 Beijing Olympics shows "at least they understand this as a major
Professor Zhang agrees that China has a pollution problem, but he is more
forgiving of the situation. The nation is climbing out of deep poverty, and
environmental damage is one price it has had to pay for prosperity, Zhang
notes. "The tolerance level is higher." Stay a few days in Beijing and
breath the air and "you don't feel that terribly bad. When you are hungry,
you worry about food, no matter how dirty you are. Chinese offer the analogy
that "the nation is a construction site and everything is not tidy." Zhang
says the Chinese will present a modern city focused on environmental
practices, a monumental sales pitch to other Chinese cities and the world,
showing what great strides the country is making.
The central government likes to establish models and then have those models
replicated around the country, Zhang says. "So in that sense, you are
building up a model city [for the 2008 Olympics]. You are building a
showroom." But in this author's opinion, Beijing in reality will be no more
than a short-term Environmental Potemkin Village, one in which at least
several athletes are likely to collapse and die on the tracks or on the
Even the normally acquiescent United Nations, through its Environment
Programme, is very concerned. A recent UNEP report has ghastly findings
about the concentration of particulate matter, which comes from construction
sites, coal-burning boilers and dust storms. This pollutant is at about the
same concentration level as it was in 2000, and at certain periods is three
times above the WHO safe limit.
UNEP spokesman Eric Falt said Olympic organisers, athletes, spectators and
Beijing residents had every right to be worried. "We have said it has been a
concern for a long time, but I do not want to go beyond what has been said,"
he told BBC. Falt said only long-term planning and proper enforcement could
solve the problem.
The UNEP report contradicts comments made by Beijing officials. Du
Shaozhong, Beijing's head of environmental protection, said in August
2007: "I am sure we will be able to ensure good air quality during Olympic
I am not the only person worried about all of this....the U.S. Olympic
Committee's lead exercise physiologist, Randy Wilber described questions
from athletes in a discussion with Juliet Macur of the International Herald
Tribune: "Should I run behind a bus and breathe in the exhaust? Should I
train on the highway during rush hour? Is there any way to acclimate to
"We have to be extremely careful and steer them in the right direction
because the mind-set of the elite athlete is to do anything it takes to get
that advantage," Wilbur recently said. "If they thought locking themselves
in the garage with the car running would help them win a gold medal, I'm
sure they would do it. Our job, obviously, is to prevent that." Wilber has
spent the past two years devising safe ways for athletes to face the noxious
air in Beijing. Wilber has traveled to Beijing three times to measure the
pollution at each Olympic site, and said no one of them is relying on
Chinese officials' statistics!
International Olympic Committee's president, Jacques Rogge, said he was
confident the air would be clean because Chinese officials "are not going to
let down the world." (This is delusional pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, in
Rogge recalled that pollution was a concern before the Summer Games in 1984
in Los Angeles and in 2004 in Athens but that the air quality was not a
problem when competition began. Personally, I can't forget in 1984 visiting
Occidental College, my alma mater (also one of Barack Obama's alma maters)
and deciding to run one mile on the track that had been refurbished by a
gift from New Mexico's Robert Orville Anderson. What a mistake! The carbon
monoxide and god knows what else caused me to partially black out, then vomit at the end of the mile for a least ten minutes-classic carbon monoxide poisoning!
Wilber's research shows certain pollutants as "significantly higher" than
they were at Athens or Los Angeles, so he scouted for alternate training
sites in South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Malaysia for use in the days
before the Beijing Games. The triathlon team is training in South Korea, and
the canoe and kayak athletes went to Japan. Wilber encourages athletes to
arrive in Beijing at the last moment, and has tested athletes to see if they
qualify for an exemption to use an asthma inhaler. He urges all to wear
masks over their noses and mouths from the minute they step foot in Beijing
until they begin competing! This strategy could give the U.S. team an edge
over less prepared teams, but its downside is to run the risk of offending
the host country, creating political tension at an event that is supposed to
foster good will among nations. I say, "So what? Why worry about offending
the Chinese? Not just our athletes' performance is at stake, but their
health as well!"
Pollution levels on a typical day in Beijing are five times above World
Health Organization standards for safety. Marathon world-record holder Haile
Gebrselassie has allergies, and No. 1 women's tennis player Justine Henin
has asthma; both have reservations about competing in Beijing fearing that
pollution will worsen their breathing problems. Some complained that
Beijing's foul air in earlier trials caused respiratory infections and
Colby Pearce, Olympic track cycling hopeful from Boulder, Colorado, saw smog
floating inside the velodrome in Beijing. "When you are coughing up black
mucus, you have to stop for a second and say: 'O.K., I get it. This is a
really, really bad problem we're looking at.' " The U.S. boxing team, while
competing in China ran in the hotel hallways instead of on the streets
because the air was "disgusting."
George Thurston, Professor of Environmental Medicine at New York University
School of Medicine, said the body's reaction to pollution exposure is
immediate. "Your body says, 'This air is bad; breathe less of it,' and
that's a defensive mechanism. For athletes, that means they will go into
oxygen debt sooner and will start cramping up. At the Olympics, that could
Pollution can provoke allergic reactions or set off asthma attacks. The
risk of a heart attack rises on high-pollution days. He worries most about
ozone and particulate matter, two of five pollutants that affect an
athlete's performance. (Carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide
are the others.) Vehicle emissions, coal-fueled factories and construction
sites in and around Beijing generate the high level of air pollution. "Ozone
directly affects the lungs, and at high enough levels, it would cause fluid
to come into the lungs," Thurston said. "Particulate matter is actually
breathed in, and the particles deposit on the lungs and can actually pass
through the lungs and into the bloodstream. Both can cause acute reactions
in people exposed to them."
The issue is deadly to marathoners, triathletes and cyclists. Rogge has
threatened to reschedule endurance events if the pollution level on
competition days poses a danger to athletes. An athlete working out at a
moderate pace for 30 minutes in poor air is subject to the same exposure as
a sedentary person breathing that air for eight hours, Wilber said.
"It's pretty rare to have a full-blown asthma attack because of pollution,
but it will affect an athlete's performance, and our testing shows that.
You're not going to drop dead, but your oxygen transport is definitely being
compromised. It could mean the difference between a gold medal and finishing
in the back of the pack."
"We've got to take a lot of precautions to keep our athletes away from the
Olympic hoopla and out of the pollution before their event," said Chris
Hipgrave, the Olympic high performance director at USA Canoe/Kayak, adding
that the team would use high-efficiency particulate air filters in room air-
conditioners at the Games. Tim Hornsby, an Olympic hopeful in sprint kayak
who has exercise-induced asthma, said having an inhaler would be crucial for
those with breathing problems. Pollution is a major asthma trigger. "It's
frightening to feel like you can't breathe," he said.
Wilber's U.S. Olympic Committee lab co-designed a mask using activated
carbon filtration system; 750 to 1,000 masks, costing $20-$25 each, will be
part of the Olympic gear. The masks filter 85 percent to 100 percent of the
main pollutants, Wilber said, compared with paper masks, which only filter
25 percent to 45 percent (but not the carbon monoxide, we hasten to add).
Sandrine Tonge, spokeswoman for the International Olympic Committee, said
the international federation for each sport makes the rules on what athletes
cannot wear in competition. Thus, it is conceivable that some athletes will
wear masks during their Olympic events, but Wilber said no Americans would
do so. "I think it would be a huge political issue and an embarrassment to
the Chinese people and to the IOC if American athletes wore masks in the
event itself," Wilber said. "If that image was beamed around the world on
TV, it would cause nothing but problems," but once again, we ask: so what?)
"It's much more important to guard against the pollution beforehand and go
to the line with clean lungs," he said. U.S. triathletes wore masks in China
last September, but removed them before competing. They stepped off the bus
looking like, one triathlete put it, a gathering of Darth Vaders. No other
teams were wearing masks. Some opponents snickered. "You do look kind of
silly wearing it," said one triathlete, Jarrod Shoemaker, 25, who had
competed in Beijing before, "but I wore it before the race this time, and I
didn't feel burning in my throat afterward. I could still taste the grit on
my teeth, but I could actually talk and breathe. That wasn't the case in
So this describes what Olympic Athletes will be breathing in Beijing. What
will they be eating? More ethylene glycol? More poisoned eels and farm-
raised fish mixed in with their Kung Pao Chicken or those General Tso's
The smartest and/or best financed nations will be bringing their own food
and their own caterers with them, for this reason, but nothing will prevent
the injuries and probably several deaths in Olympic athletes from Beijing's
unspeakable air pollution. The karmic, spiritual, and humanitarian pollution
in China is something that very few even care about.