Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Beijing Air Pollution Mystery Could Be Solved, Scientists Say

Climate
Air pollution in Beijing. DuKai photographer / Getty Images

More than one million people die each year in China from particulate matter air pollution, but despite 15 years and billions of dollars of efforts to clean up the country's air, dangerous winter smog persists.

Now, an international team of scientists think they have discovered the reason why: The instruments used to measure Beijing's particulate matter pollution were misinterpreting their readings.


"Our research points towards ways that can more quickly clean up air pollution. It could help save millions of lives and guide billions of dollars of investment in air pollution reductions," said Jonathan M. Moch, first paper author and graduate student at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), in a Harvard press release.

In the past, instruments had picked up on the high level of sulfur compounds and read them as sulfates. The Chinese government therefore focused on reducing sulfur dioxide pollution from coal burning power plants. But while the government was successful in those efforts, the overall air pollution levels did not decrease as expected.

That is because, as the team of researchers from Harvard, Tsinghua University and the Harbin Institute of Technology revealed in Geophysical Research Letters Thursday, a lot of those sulfur compounds were actually hydroxymethane sulfonate (HMS)—a compound formed when sulfur dioxide reacts with formaldehyde in smog or fog. The type of instruments used to measure particulate matter in Beijing can easily confuse the two.

The researchers ran a computer model and found that HMS compounds could make up a lot of the particulate matter found in China's persistent winter smog.

"By including this overlooked chemistry in air quality models, we can explain why the number of wintertime extremely polluted days in Beijing did not improve between 2013 and January 2017 despite major success in reducing sulfur dioxide," Moch said.

Moch also said the findings explained why the government's efforts finally seemed to pay off last winter—sulfur dioxide fell below formaldehyde for the first time, so less HMS was formed.

"We think there could have been a shorter way if they had gone straight at formaldehyde," Moch told The Boston Globe.

Major sources of formaldehyde pollution in Eastern China include emissions from vehicles and chemical or oil refineries, so the researchers recommend that China now work on reducing pollution from these sources.

The research team now plans to directly measure HMS levels in Beijing using altered instruments and to use models to assess the importance of HMS formation to pollution across China.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

More than 1,000 people were told to evacuate their homes when a wildfire ignited in the foothills west of Denver Monday, Colorado Public Radio reported.

Read More Show Less

Accessibility to quality health care has dropped for millions of Americans who lost their health insurance due to unemployment. mixetto / E+ / Getty Images

Accessibility to quality health care has dropped for millions of Americans who lost their health insurance due to unemployment. New research has found that 5.4 million Americans were dropped from their insurance between February and May of this year. In that three-month stretch more Americans lost their coverage than have lost coverage in any entire year, according to The New York Times.

Read More Show Less
Heat waves are most dangerous for older people and those with health problems. Global Jet / Flickr / CC by 2.0

On hot days in New York City, residents swelter when they're outside and in their homes. The heat is not just uncomfortable. It can be fatal.

Read More Show Less
Nearly 250 U.S. oil and gas companies are expected to file for bankruptcy by the end of next year. Joshua Doubek / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 3.0

Fracking companies are going bankrupt at a rapid pace, often with taxpayer-funded bonuses for executives, leaving harm for communities, taxpayers, and workers, the New York Time reports.

Read More Show Less
Trump introduces EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler during an event to announce changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Jan. 9, 2020 in Washington, DC. The changes would make it easier for federal agencies to approve infrastructure projects without considering climate change. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

A report scheduled for release later Tuesday by Congress' non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds that the Trump administration undervalues the costs of the climate crisis in order to push deregulation and rollbacks of environmental protections, according to The New York Times.

Read More Show Less
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), and AASA, The School Superintendents Association, voiced support for safe reopening measures. www.vperemen.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA

By Kristen Fischer

It's going to be back-to-school time soon, but will children go into the classrooms?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so, but only as long as safety measures are in place.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Critics charge the legislation induces poor communities to sell off their water rights. Pexels

By Eoin Higgins

Over 300 groups on Monday urged Senate leadership to reject a bill currently under consideration that would incentivize communities to sell off their public water supplies to private companies for pennies on the dollar.

Read More Show Less