#2 - The Beijing Air Quality Research of Staci Simonich

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Introduction/Conclusion: Naomi Hirsch
Host: Sandra Uesugi
Guest: Staci Simonich

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HIRSCH: From the Environmental Health Sciences Center at Oregon State University, this is EH at Home, a series highlighting environmental health science, research, news and information. Thanks for listening!

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UESUGI: This is Sandra Uesugi. The Beijing air quality was a concern for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. The Chinese government initiated cutbacks of heavy polluting vehicles such before and during the games to reduce pollution as well as other approaches. Did these strategies work?

Dr. Staci Simonich of the Environmental and Molecular Toxicology department and an investigator at the Environmental Health Sciences Center at Oregon State University went to Beijing to find out.

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I’m here talking to Dr. Staci Simonich, and Staci is just back from Beijing where she did some very interesting studies for the Olympics. Staci, can you tell us some background about the project and how you got involved?

SIMONICH: Oh, it’s a very interesting route I think to how I ended up in Beijing during the Olympics. It started about two years ago when I first approached two faculty members at Peking University in the Environmental Science Program and I was noticing some of the very good research they were publishing in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology.

One professor’s name is Dr. Shu Tao, and he is a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon expert for China in both primarily the emissions and the human exposure. He’s done some very interesting work there that he’s published. And Dr. Tong Zhu is also in the Environmental Sciences Department at Peking University. He specializes in atmospheric chemistry. I contacted both of them and invited both of them to visit Oregon State University and the Environmental Health Sciences Center and to give presentations.

From that I developed collaborations with them and in the summer of 2006, it was the first time we did work in Tong Zhu’s laboratory. We went back in the summer of 2007 to begin collecting size fractionated particulate matter and then January 2008 and then I was fortunate to go during the Olympics during this past summer to look at how or if the air quality had improved compared to the previous summer.

UESUGI: And what kind of results did you see?

SIMONICH: Well, we’re still collecting samples there. A Chinese student at Peking University is continuing to collect air samples now that the Olympics and Paralympics ended and the traffic is coming on.

It’s been a very interesting story because the week prior to the Olympics when I was there, the air quality was not very good. And fortunately as the Olympics started, there was periodic rain and enough wind from the right direction to clean out the city and keep it relatively clean, especially for Beijing during the Olympics and mostly during the Paralympics.

And now even the samples we have now that the traffic has come on board, it’s still looking good primarily because of meteorological conditions.

UESUGI: Do you think that there will be lasting improvements to the air quality? Will people start adopting less driving or lower pollution techniques?

SIMONICH: Some of the big findings will be just the awareness of Chinese citizens and the publicity it got and the efforts that the Beijing government went to to improve the emissions from sources in Beijing. So I think that’s one big step.

But I think another big learning is that even after they had done all the controls they could and still keep the city running, there were still days where you had the same emissions going on but you had clean air one day and poor air quality the next. So they’re really at the mercy of meteorology.

So I think there is learning in both of those cases. They’re rapidly improving their subway system and that will be a huge improvement in terms of automobile traffic. And the subway is very inexpensive. So I think from a public transportation stand point, it will only continue to get better because the subway is so affordable and is expanding so rapidly.

UESUGI: Was that infrastructure put for the Olympics?

SIMONICH: Some of it was, but some of it wasn’t yet complete. For example, when I went to one of the Olympic events, I had to first take a taxi, then I took the subway and then I took a bus to the Olympic event. So depending on where you were going in the city and the traffic conditions, you could take three different forms of transportation to get just across the city. So I think that simplifying and the subway system is really improving. There were lines that were there for the Olympics and there is going to continue to be other lines for the subway.

UESUGI: I heard that a lot of the pollution was generated in just the construction to build facilities for the Olympics.

SIMONICH: Yeah, I think it’s a bit curious to think that in the previous several years, the particulate matter of ten micron or greater (PM10), probably a significant measureable fraction of that was just from the construction of the Olympic venues. One of the measures that were in place for the Olympics was to decrease construction to bring down the PM10 levels and we did see a reduction compared to the previous summer. So construction played a role in the Olympics, both from the construction process in stirring up dust and all that occurs during construction, but also the vehicles used during construction.

And we also have to think that when all those visitors came into the city, they largely took taxies, I’m guessing. So that contributed to the air quality too. So just having the Olympics there is also a factor. Probably not as great as the original source factors ten years ago, or eight years ago, but certainly played a role.

UESUGI: Can you tell us a little bit about your sampling that you did there?

SIMONICH: In the summer of 2007, the winter of 2008, and the summer of 2008 during the Olympics and continuing now, we collected size fractionated particulate matter on the top of a seven-story building at Peking University on top of the geology building.

We collected PM greater than 10 micron, PM 10 to 2.5 micron, and PM less than 2.5 micron in all three of those time periods. We had one site that we were at in these different times of the year, under different conditions, to compare to one another.

We have one site, but the Beijing government had something like 15 sites around the city collecting just PM10. So we were able to then connect our data to theirs to see how they compare.

But Peking University was a good place to be because of its location and there were actually some Olympic events near campus. The marathon went by. So it was a good site in terms of we were able safely be there over an extended period of time at one site and watch how things change. It also had relevance for the Olympics.

UESUGI: What’s the significance of PM10 and PM2.5?

SIMONICH: The reason why we look for it is because the particles themselves, that fine in diameter can be trapped in the human lung and not expelled when you cough. So there’s concern for respiratory distress if the concentrations are too high and you’re a sensitive person.

We were looking at both the concentration in the air, the total amount of particles in those size ranges, but also then now those samples will come back to my laboratory and we’ll measure them for cancer causing compounds including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

UESUGI: You said that you went to one of the Olympic events and also a preview of the opening ceremony?

SIMONICH: Yes, I was very fortunate. About a week ahead of time before the Olympics, I went to a dress rehearsal of the opening ceremony in the Birds Nest Stadium. I was given a ticket by one of the faculty members at PKU. So it was a very big honor because here I was in the Birds Nest Stadium, one of the very few Westerns because it was fairly top secret. The program hadn’t been unveiled yet so it was a very honor. It was very neat to see the opening ceremony both in person at the Birds Nest Stadium but later on TV to see both of those perspectives.

Then I was also fortunate to be given tickets to see women’s gymnastics and men’s tennis. So I mostly was there to focus on the science but it was interesting to see the cultural aspects and the huge effort that the Chinese government and the people of Beijing put towards the Olympics and also to be able to participate and see my first Olympic events.

UESUGI: If you could do any summer Olympic event, what would you choose?

SIMONICH: If I would do one?

UESUGI: Yeah!

SIMONICH: Well, I’m wondering why surfing isn’t an Olympic event because sailing is an Olympic event so why isn’t ocean surfing an Olympic event. I would make surfing an Olympic event.

UESUGI: Well, thanks for talking with us!

SIMONICH: You’re welcome!

UESUGI: To learn out more about Staci’s research on global movement of chemicals through the atmosphere, be sure to catch to Episode 1 of EH at Home.

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HIRSCH: On behalf of all of us at the Center, we want to remind you that when it comes to your health, you have the power to make a difference. For more information, and to tell us what you think and what you would like to hear, visit our website at http://ehsc.oregonstate.edu. We are funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Have an awesome day!