Quantcast

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

David Gilmour performs at Anfiteatro Scavi di Pomei on July 7, 2016 in Pompei, Italy. Francesco Prandoni / Redferns / Getty Images

David Gilmour, guitarist, singer and songwriter in the rock band Pink Floyd, set a record last week when he auctioned off 126 guitars and raised $21.5 million for ClientEarth, a non-profit environmental law group dedicated to fighting the global climate crisis, according to CNN.

Read More Show Less
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue speaks during a forum April 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong / Getty Images

The Trump administration ratcheted up its open hostility to climate science in a move that may hide essential information from the nation's farmers.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored

Zero Waste Kitchen Essentials

Simple swaps that cut down on kitchen trash.

Sponsored

By Kayla Robbins

Along with the bathroom, the kitchen is one of the most daunting areas to try and make zero waste.

Read More Show Less
Protestors and police stand on ether side of railway tracks. dpa / picture-alliance

Police have cleared 250 climate activists who stayed overnight at the Garzweiler brown coal mine in western Germany, officials said Sunday.

Read More Show Less
Cecilie_Arcurs / E+ / Getty Images

By Megan Jones and Jennifer Solomon

The #MeToo movement has caused profound shake-ups at organizations across the U.S. in the last two years. So far, however, it has left many unresolved questions about how workplaces can be more inclusive and equitable for women and other diverse groups.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Cigarette butts are the most-littered item found at beach clean ups. John R. Platt

By Tara Lohan

By now it's no secret that plastic waste in our oceans is a global epidemic. When some of it washes ashore — plastic bottles, plastic bags, food wrappers — we get a stark reminder. And lately one part of this problem has been most glaring to volunteers who comb beaches picking up trash: cigarette butts.

Read More Show Less

Andrea Rodgers, second from the right, takes notes during a hearing in the Juliana v. U.S. case before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland, Oregon on June 4. Colleague Elizabeth Brown sits to her left, while colleague Julia Olson sits on her right, with co-council Philip Gregory on Julia's right. Robin Loznak / Our Children's Trust

By Fran Korten

On June 4, Andrea Rodgers was in the front row of attorneys sitting before a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court. The court session, held in Portland, Oregon, was to determine whether the climate change lawsuit (Juliana v. United States) brought by 21 young plaintiffs should be dismissed, as requested by the U.S. government, or go on to trial.

Read More Show Less
Seventy Extinction Rebellion protesters were arrested outside The New York Times building Saturday. SCOOTERCASTER / YouTube screenshot

Seventy Extinction Rebellion protesters were arrested outside The New York Times building Saturday as they demanded the paper improve its coverage of the climate crisis, Reuters reported.

Read More Show Less