For the past week, Beijing residents have struggled to go about their daily lives under the cover of almost unprecedented air pollution. Normal industrial smog, compounded by coal-burning, cold weather and slack winds have blanketed the city in a dense toxic soup. On Saturday January 12, air quality monitoring centres recorded levels of PM2.5 above 600 micrograms per cubic metre. On Sunday, independent sources recorded PM2.5 pollution levels of micro particulate in excess of 950 mcg in Tongzhou, Beijing. If that can be confirmed, it would be the highest level ever reported or recorded, anywhere in the world.
Clouds of air pollution are nothing new for the residents of Zenica, in Bosnia & Herzegovina. Settled in a valley between two mountain ranges, the 128,000 people living and working in the region spend much of the winter under a low-hanging blanket of smog. The primary cause is ArcelorMittal’s massive steel plant, a huge industrial site creating steel manufacturing parts for European construction projects. During the cold winter months, its emissions settle over the valley in a noxious cloud of air so thick a journalist from Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso described it as ‘not breathed, but rather swallowed’.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to estimate how much pollution the residents of Zenica are exposed to every day – as neither the city nor the steel plant own equipment to monitor air quality.
Dangerous, deadly and invisible
The most prevalent and dangerous particles measured by air quality monitors are known as PM2.5. Only ~2.5 micrometers in size, they are small enough to penetrate the alveoli of human lungs. Regular exposure to them has been shown to contribute to acute respiratory infections, thoracic cancers and cardiovascular disease. Because of this, the World Health Organization considers the ‘acceptable’ level of PM2.5 particles in a cubic metre of air to be 25.
Beijing and Shanghai regularly record PM2.5 levels above 100 – a rate with serious consequences for public health. According to the WHO, respiratory disease causes 15% of China’s deaths. A 2010 air pollution study by Greenpeace East Asia found that coal ash is a main component of Beijing and Shanghai’s spring dust storms in the past decade, during which levels of arsenic, lead, selenium and sulphur in the air exceed normals by up to 53 times.
In Zenica the statistics are even worse:
In the period between 2002 and 2011, tumours have become the second leading cause of death among residents with a striking 20%. According to the report, the number of cancer patients increased from 892 persons in 2002 to 1,888 in 2010 and 1,774 in 2011. If the number of patients had increased from 1063 to 1065 from 2003 to 2004, from 2004 onwards it has increased by the hundreds each year, and especially from 2007 onwards, i.e. since the full production of steel was resumed by reactivating the old plants that had been turned off at the beginning of the war in 1992.
During 2008’s Beijing Olympics, the Chinese proved they could dramatically reduce the levels of urban air pollution by enforcing strict regulations on car traffic, coal burning and factory emissions. These temporary reductions even contributed to health improvements in Beijing residents. Unfortunately for all, the benefits were short-lived. Once the games ended, so did most of the restrictions.
“If you’re going out, don’t breathe”
As the toxic fog descended on Beijing last weekend, municipal officials recommended emergency measures, encouraging the elderly and children to stay indoors. Despite their efforts, hospital visits for breathing problems were reportedly up 30%, flights were cancelled and visibility in some regions dropped to 50m.
Wednesday’s winds are expected to help dissipate the cloud of pollution over Beijing, and leaders are promising action to ensure this crisis does not happen again. The same outcome is not likely in Zenica, at least not right away.
In December, activists from Eco Forum Zenica organized several thousand people to march on ArcelorMittal’s steel plant and call on the company to install air filters and take concrete steps to reduce pollution.
“We’ve been writing letters and sending appeals for four years to this company. They have the support of the authorities and can ‘buy’ three politicians, five ministers and four inspectors, but they cannot buy thousands of citizens.” – Samir Lemes, Eco Forum Zenica
Even more challenging is the fact that Zenica does not even own air quality monitoring equipment. While their Economic Development Strategy includes its purchase in their list of goals through 2020, the city has yet to acquire them. As for December’s protests, executives at ArcelorMittal have yet to respond, though a press release on their website does state a de-dusting facility is ‘planned’ for its Zenica plant.
If you believe breathing clean, safe air is a human right, here are a few organizations who would love your support:
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