Beijing's PM2.5 monitoring network a breath of fresh air

As anyone who knows me will attest, I absolutely LOVED living in Beijing. In my mind, it’s the most exciting city in the world: historical sights such as The Temple of Heaven and Forbidden City rub shoulders with cutting edge architecture (the CCTV headquarters and Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium), while the capital is also home to Asia’s most exciting art scene and scores of wonderful restaurants catering to every palette and pocket. However while Beijing is a dynamic place to call home, it’s not a healthy one by any means – thanks to the appalling air pollution. Subsequently despite sporting a pollution mask that made me look like the late Michael Jackson, I still managed to succumb to the Beijing cough – a hacking, lung ripping cough that left me gasping for breath on an almost daily basis.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist then, to work out that I have welcomed Beijing authorities’ recent decision to release official air quality data - collected by 20 monitoring stations scattered across the city - with open arms.

The monitors will measure air quality more accurately, meaning Beijing dwellers can now make informed decisions on when it’s safe to venture out without suffering from stinging eyes - and when they would be better off hunkering down at home and waiting for the smog to subside.

For make no mistake, the severity of the smog cannot be denied: one day last December, Beijing international airport was forced to close owing to the thick brown stuff, while the lung cancer rate in the capital has risen by 60 percent (despite a decrease in the number of smokers) during the last decade. Yet despite such shocking statistics, the government has been reluctant to act on or release any information pertaining to the city’s air quality. Sure pollution improved improved during the 2008 Beijing Olympics (the government spent a reported US$19 billion cleaning the air for the Games) but when, in the aftermath, the laowai reporters returned to their homelands, Beijing worryingly became Greyjing once more.

But the authorities introduction of a network of PM2.5 monitors is more than merely a long over due acknowledgment that the air quality is hazardous to Beijingers’ health. It is proof that the government is finally listening to its residents who - along with the US Embassy - have been crying out for more detailed pollution data, for far too long.

I know first hand of at least five foreigners who left Beijing after a year - due in no small part to the pollution problem. “Beijing is an amazing place,” Geraldine Cowper, a 28 year old media executive who returned to New York after a year spent living and working in Beijing, recently told me via Skype. “I was sad to leave and do miss so much about China, but long term I couldn’t live somewhere where I had trouble breathing. And in 2012, I don’t see why I should have to.”

The PM2.5 monitoring network may only be a baby step, but nonetheless it’s a step in the right direction - and one from which Beijing, in its bid to become a global business hub, and Beijingers alike can only benefit. The city’s skyline may at present still be hazy, but happily we are all no longer hazy about the severity of the capital's pollution problem.