Nanjing Publishes Real Pollution Data on Weibo, Then Deletes It

Beijing residents are probably familiar with the Twitter account @BeijingAir, which is run by the US Embassy and runs real-time updates on the air quality in Beijing. The reason this is necessary is that Beijing — and indeed China as a whole — does not publish data about PM2.5 particles in the air.

PM — which stands for Particulate Matter — is a way of measuring the amount of particles in the air. The number after PM indicates the size of the particles in micrometers. From the EPA’s official site:

Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) pose a health concern because they can be inhaled into and accumulate in the respiratory system. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) are referred to as “fine” particles and are believed to pose the greatest health risks. Because of their small size (approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair), fine particles can lodge deeply into the lungs.

The Chinese government doesn’t publish PM2.5 numbers because they are pretty horrific, as Beijing residents who recall the #crazybad incident (or this year’s “beyond index” postings) are well aware. In fact, the US Embassy’s real-time posting of PM2.5 data so irked the Chinese government that they requested the Embassy find some way to ensure only Americans could see the tweets, according to Wikileaks cables. (The Embassy declined, and soon after Twitter was blocked in China and it became something of a moot point).

Anyway, earlier this week, a Chinese city did publish PM2.5 data publicly on it’s official Sina Weibo account. It just wasn’t on purpose. (Thanks to @kinablog for finding this link). The following is a partial translation of this article from Southern Metropolis Daily. I’ve left out bits that are non-essential or redundant given the explanation above.

Translation

At 7 AM on 11/14, the official Nanjing Weather microblog account posted a weather forecast as it always does, but this time for the first time ever they included PM2.5 [pollution] data from the day before. This is the first time PM2.5 data has ever been published by a city on the mainland. Shortly after, the microblog post was reposted by the Nanjing City Propaganda Committee official microblog account, but right after that the post was deleted, and the person who made the “Nanjing Weather” account post was sought for investigation. A representative for the Nanjing Meteorological Office [which runs the Nanjing Weather microblog] said that the Nanjing Meteorological Department does not have the right to publish PM2.5 data, and should not be tweeting it on microblogs.

That day, the Nanjing Weather tweet with the weather forecast said this:

In recent days, the atmosphere has been stable, but although the weather is clear, the air has been murky. A city probe found that visibility was under 8km and that PM2.5 levels were above 75ug/m^3, which is higher than usual.

When reposting this message, the Nanjing Propaganda Committee’s microblog account specifically added the warning “Please pay attention and protect yourself [i.e. protect your health].”

[…]

In accordance with the measuring standards of the US Embassy in Beijing [which uses the EPA standards used in the US], Nanjing’s 75ug/m^3 reading for PM2.5 corresponds to 156 on the Air Pollution Index, which is classified as Unhealthy. This level of pollution carries the warning: “individuals with breathing or heart problems should reduce outdoor exercise.” [Although it’s worth noting that in Hong Kong, the same exact level of pollution is classified as “Very High” and the warning notes that healthy people may also experience discomfort].

After Nanjing Weather posted the PM2.5 data, it was rapidly reposted and noticed by netizens […] but the post in question was soon deleted from the Nanjing Weather and Nanjing Announcements accounts.

A spokesperson for the Nanjing Meteorological Department said that they do not have the right to post PM2.5 numbers publicly, according to a Nanjing Longhu Net report. The spokesman said that the microblog post should have have been sent out, and that they quickly handled the situation by deleting the post and finding the person responsible. The spokesman also confirmed that the Nanjing Meteorological Department does have two instruments that monitor PM2.5 levels, but that data is not public, and is only used for research. The spokesman said that as far as publishing PM2.5 levels goes, “that would be a good thing for most of the common people but from the Meteorological Department’s perspective it’s an instance of breaking a regulation, and that now is not the right time to publish these numbers. In the future, we will work together with the environmental protection bureau to publish them.”

The vice-department head of Beijing’s Environmental Protection Department was asked in an interview on ChinaNews on November 11 whether China had plans to begin publishing PM2.5 data, and he responded that Beijing would take the lead on this front, saying “Beijing is the capital, so perhaps it will move a bit faster [than other cities].”

Conclusion

This matters because, unpleasant smell aside, PM pollution is no joke. Check it:

The results of the 2002 follow-up study showed significant associations between PM2.5 and elevated risks for cardiopulmonary and lung cancer mortality. The study found that each 10-microgram per-cubic-meter increase in long-term average PM2.5 concentrations was associated with approximately a 4% increased risk of death from all natural causes, a 6% increased risk of death from cardiopulmonary disease, and an 8% increased risk of death from lung cancer. Associations were also found with sulfur-containing air pollution but not other gaseous pollutants. On the other hand, measures of coarse particles were not consistently associated with mortality.

As the study researchers indicated in the press release for this study, the lung cancer risk associated with exposure to fine particulate matter is comparable to that faced by nonsmokers who live with smokers, and are exposed long term to secondhand cigarette smoke.

So, if each 10 ug/m^3 results in a 6% increased risk for cardiopulmonary disease and an 8% increased risk for cancer, then Nanjing’s 75 ug/m^3 air means that (assuming the air remained around that level most of the time) long term exposure would give Nanjing denizens a 45% increased risk of dying from cardiopulmonary disease and a 60% increased risk of dying from lung cancer, compared to a person who’s breathing clean air.

I don’t even want to think about what those numbers might look like for Beijing.

In the midst of China’s political problems, it’s good to remember that although the oppression is cruel and frustrating, pollution is an equally dire threat that affects literally everyone with functional lungs.

Well, everyone except government officials, who get access to special purified air along with their special organic food.

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0 thoughts on “Nanjing Publishes Real Pollution Data on Weibo, Then Deletes It”

  1. “I don’t even want to think about what those numbers might look like for Beijing.”

    Time to give up the ghost and start smoking? Hey man, quit bein’ a sissy. Let’s enjoy our last 5 years on this god-fersakin’ rock.

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  2. I live in Nanjing, and we’ve actually been able to see “blue” sky the last few days. So if we are hitting 150 on the AQI on days with decent visibility, I hate to think what it’s normally at. For reference, today visibility was closer to 3-4km tops than 8km mentioned on the day of the data release (I live roughly 2km from the tallest building in Nanjing which makes it easy to estimate).

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  3. Lol, if the nanjing meteorological department doesn’t have the “right” to publish air quality data, I wonder who does?

    “that now is not the right time to publish these numbers.”
    — I wonder how many euphemisms they have for ” the time is not ripe”?

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  4. Its not convenient.

    The last time I heard that was 11 years ago on a river boat resturaunt, when I politely asked to have two tables joined together for our dining group.

    I threw the waiter into Louyang Bay, Fujian.

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  5. Lived in Nanjing 2003-2005 and the pollution wasn’t great, but Shenzhen when I lived there was just far, far worse. In Nanjing I never felt like I was simply breathing dirt, but the worst days in Shenzhen, especially when I used to go for a run, gave me that feeling.

    As for Beijing, I went on a business trip with a colleague who ordinarily lives in the Finnish countryside to our Beijing office. She lost her voice on the second day in the city, got it back after a few days back home.

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  6. @FOARP: Yeah, the Beijing “air” seems to do pretty horrible things to first-timers coming from non-polluted areas. Almost everyone seems to get some lung-related issues when they first show up.

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  7. The whole “time is not right” and “you don’t have the right to publish” line on this data kind of reminds me of the Soviet Union’s line on infant mortality.

    When infant mortality in the USSR was decreasing in the post-war period (a dead-cat bounce after the collectivization famines and the Nazi invasion), the Party plastered the data all over every forum (in those days, the non electronic kind, like UNICEF) and trumpeted the superiority of socialism to all and sundry.

    But bit by bit the trend reversed and when infant mortality started creeping up (IIRC late 60s/early 70s), all of a sudden the data was no longer available: it was insufficient, incomplete and was not “ready” for publication.

    But fortunately it’s not 40 years ago any more and we don’t have to put up with that kind of “Ministry of Truth” manipulation any more… right?

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  8. Oh brother. C Custer, somehow you conspire that the central government decides to censor pollution data which is just BS. Why don’t they remove pollution data for other cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing?

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  9. Pug, for the millionth time, did you even read the post? Where does Custer suggest (in this case) that the “central government” is censoring pollution data? This event occurred in Nanjing. On the other hand, is it so difficult (for sane people, not you necessarily) to fathom that the CCP would want to put a lid on embarrassing disclosures like terrible air pollution? It wouldn’t be the first time that the CCP tried to bury some inconvenient information. And if you’d bothered to read anything whatsoever, you’d realize that the noteworthy thing here was the publication of PM2.5 data, which is precisely the sort of data that the US embassy in Beijing measures and is precisely the sort of data that the CCP does not disclose due to concerns that “the time is not ripe”. I mean, we all know you’re an idiot and treat you accordingly, but it is gob-smacking that you actually live down to expectations each and every time.

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  10. @ pug_ster: They do. None of those cities publish PM2.5 data. Please start reading the posts before you comment, you’re just wasting everyone’s time when you make “points” that are directly addressed in the original post.

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  11. And seriously, last time I was in central BJ back in June it felt like I was either on drugs or in the middle of the shooting of a Blade Runner remake – even a colossal downpour only got things back to the level of being “not good” on the scale that you might normally see in Taipei.

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  12. @FOARP

    I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on the *COUGH* shoulder of…*COUGH* Ori–*RETCH*. I watched C-beams gli–*HACK* in the dark near th-*WHEEZE*. Oh f$@! it, time to die.

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  13. “Maybe they don’t agree with the assessment with how US embassy measures Pollution data.”
    —LOL. That was NOT your point. You said “Why don’t they remove pollution data for other cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing”, except there’s nothing to “remove” since they’re never posted to begin with. Now that you’ve been exposed as an idiot yet again, you try to change your point. Why can’t people like you have the strength of character to at least acknowledge when you screw up? Given how often it occurs, you would have plenty of practice in expressions of contrition. Alas, guess you were never taught proper behaviour as a child, and now you repeatedly make an ass of yourself as an adult. The importance of upbringing can never be over-estimated.

    On what basis does the CCP supposedly “maybe” disagree with how the US embassy measures pollution? Are the US gauges “maybe” faulty? Does the CCP “maybe” question the existence of PM 2.5 particles, or their health effects? C’mon, tell me they have a scientific basis for questioning data, rather than just a self-serving political one. Or “maybe”, just “maybe”, you are a complete and utter idiot.

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  14. @ pugster: That obviously wasn’t you original point, but fine, I’ll bite. The US is just measuring and aspect of pollution data China ignores. Or rather, not ignores. The government must consider PM2.5 data important because it is measured nationwide, it’s just that the measurements aren’t allowed to be published.

    So, given that they take the same measurements themselves, I’m really curious to know what it is they “don’t agree with”, and why they keep saying “it’s not the right time” rather than actually addressing what’s wrong with the US system of measurement.

    Perhaps you can help them out by enlightening us as to with PM2.5 measuring is unimportant?

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  15. Charlie, does Beijing’s shocking air quality affect your long-term plans of how long you want to stay in China? Xi’an’s horrific air was one of a few factors that kept me from wanting to live there forever. Prolonged exposure to toxic air is scary to think about.

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  16. @ Mark: Yes, absolutely. No offense to those who do, but my wife and I do plan to have kids someday, and I would not feel comfortable having a pregnant woman breathing this air, or raising a child in it, especially when they’re young. And of course I’m concern about our own health as well.

    Like

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