Many fear that the thick smog, pictured here in a shot of Beijing last week, may return and have serious health effects on those attending the games. The U.S. EPA says that the smog can cause a wide array of health problems.  (Source: AP)

It's hard to see where the Olympics sign is pointing to exactly amid all the fog.  (Source: AP)
China adopts drastic measures as athletes prepare for the worst in the summer games

China has a variety of concerns as it approaches the 2008 Summer Olympics, which will be held in August.  China, young in the world of global superpowers has looked to put a good foot forward, designing stunning structures to show that it is a global force on par with the U.S. and the European Union

However, a number of less attractive features await those traveling to China.  For one, DailyTech chronicled how China plans to snoop on the internet use of its guests and plans to follow a similar site-blocking policy in its press internet areas as it does with its own national internet networks.  However, perhaps the greatest concern to athletes and fans attending the games alike is China's monumental pollution problems.

China leads the world as the largest carbon polluter.  However, it’s the other types of pollution that make up the thick Chinese smog that have health experts concerned.  Among them is the emission of nitrogen dioxide, which China leads the world in, according to satellite photos taken by the European Space Agency in 2005.  NO2 is a toxic gas that causes a variety of respiratory problems, even at low levels of inhalation.

As weather plays a major role in the drifting clouds of smog which circulate around China eventually making their way to the U.S. or elsewhere, China hopes to synthetically control the weather with antiaircraft guns and rocket launchers to prevent rain.  Now China has revealed an even more dramatic, though less strange, plan to try to protect the games against pollution in case of stagnant air.

Stagnant air is the biggest threat to the games as it traps the smog over urban areas.  The many photos of Beijing, where the games will be held showing thick smog are taken under such conditions.  This contrasts with the clean blue skied look when air is circulating at a faster pace, bringing in clean air to mix with the polluted air.

A key factor to alerting to such conditions is accurate prediction.  If such stagnant conditions are predicted to occur within 48 hours, under the new plan China will halt all construction projects nationwide and further reduce the number of vehicles on the streets.  China hopes these efforts will produce a temporary reduction in air pollution that will prevent the Summer Games from becoming the "Smog Games".  The Chinese Environmental Ministry formulated the new plan with the help of the cities of Beijing and Tianjin and Hebei province.  It was announced last Thursday at a press conference. 

Still, some fear the efforts won't be enough.  Lo Szeping of Greenpeace states, "Beijing's air quality is probably not yet up to what the world will be expecting from an Olympic hosting city."

While some may not trust the advice of Greenpeace, many prestigious doctors have warned that high levels of pollution will hurt athletes' performance.  They say endurance sports like distance running will be hit especially hard.  This is due to the fact that endurance athletes breathe in far more air -- for example marathoners breathe 10 times as much air in a given period as a normal person.

Malcolm Green of the British Lung Foundation says there can also be significant health risks, aside from poor performance and visibility.  He states, "Pollution goes down into the lungs. It can cause inflammation, it can cause people who have asthma to get asthma episodes, and so, generally, it is not very helpful to athletes."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is warning that the brew of nitrogen dioxide and other chemicals in China's air may cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, and may cause impaired lung function and increased respiratory infections.

Some athletes have refused to compete on the world's largest stage due to the risks to their health.  Haile Gebrselassie, a world-record holding Ethiopian distance runner and heavy favorite chose not to attend the games.  He suffers from asthma and is fearful that the pollution could have a dire impact on his health.

Other athletes are coming but looking for ways to protect themselves against the pollution.  Many are considering wearing masks.  Jarrod Shoemaker, a U.S. triathlete, has taken to wearing a mask in training to prepare for this.  He states, "This past year, I wore a mask all the way up to the race and after the race to see if it would work, and I felt perfectly normal, perfectly fine.  So I definitely think it worked and that's my plan again for this year."

Ultimately that may become the reality athletes are faced with as China efforts seem to have little immediate impact.  In a move labeled by some as draconian, the Chinese shut down temporarily a number of factories, and construction sites last week.  It also effectively cut the number of cars on Beijing streets by half -- only allowing odd-numbered license plates one day and even number ones the next.  Unfortunately, the efforts showed no immediate impact on air pollution levels, as China's much of China's yearly output still hangs in the sky.

In fact, due to atmospheric conditions, this week air quality in Beijing dramatically worsened.  The city was blanket in thick smog, which choked citizens and visitors and blocked out sunlight.  Rain helped to clear the smog early this week, and meteorologists are hopeful that the weather patterns may clear much of the smog in time for the opening ceremony on August 8.

While the emergency plan will not close all factories, it will call for 105 factories in Beijing and more than 106 others outside the city, to additionally be closed.  Also, only license plates with a number ending in the same number as the ending number of the day of the month would be allowed.  This would effectively cut traffic by a factor of ten.  The odd/even driving day plan would also be put in effect in the city of Tianjin and the province of Hebei.

Some argue that the efforts are not enough.  Others argue that the efforts are too punitive and that no environmental concerns should stand in the way of free business operation.  Chinese officials, though, believe the plan is just right and remain optimistic that their efforts will be enough to curb pollution at the games.  Says Du Shaozhong of China's Environment Protection Bureau, "We are still optimistic that during the Olympics we can reduce pollution well below our target thresholds."

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