IRA FLATOW, host:
You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Flatow. A little bit later on, we'll talk about a new concept in making a microscope on a chip. But next, the Olympics! They are one week away, and the city of Beijing is scrambling to clean up its polluted air, some of the worst in the world, get it clean in time for the games. Officials are taking cars off the road. They are closing down factories. And while the Chinese are implementing their pollution plan and looking for signs of blue skies, a few top athletes have already dropped out due to potential health hazards. Others are preparing for their events, trying to minimize exposure to the smoggy air, doing things like training elsewhere, or wearing face masks when they are in the Chinese capital city.
And joining me now with a report on Beijing's pollution plan is Jocelyn Ford, a science journalist, who is our blogger in Beijing for sciencefriday.com, where she's done some really excellent blogs on our website. Welcome to the program, Jocelyn.
JOCELYN FORD: Thanks, Ira.
FLATOW: Can you give us a weather report for today?
FORD: Oh, gosh, today we actually had some blue skies, I mean, really blue skies. They looked beautiful. It was - I even took pictures of it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FORD: It seemed rather unusual, unfortunately.
FLATOW: And is there a weather forecast for next week?
FORD: I don't know the accurate forecast for, you know, a whole week from now...
FORD: But the weather is going to be a key factor to whether we have blue skies and clean air during the games.
FLATOW: All right. Let me bring on another guest, also joining us now to talk about how he's preparing for his upcoming race, is Matt Reed. He is a 2000 Olympian in the triathlon. He's from Boulder, Colorado, and joins us from California. Welcome to Science Friday, Matt.
Mr. MATTHEW REED (Triathlon, 2008 Team USA): Oh, thanks, glad to be here.
FLATOW: You have had some experience racing in Beijing, have you not?
Mr. REED: Yep, I've done it in the last three years.
FLATOW: And what was your experience like?
Mr. REED: Well, the first year I did it, it was actually not too bad. There were blue skies. I think it was - the wind was blowing the opposite direction from the city to us. I think it was blowing the air pollution away. And the second year was a little bit worse than the first year, and then the third year was - which was last year, was horrendously bad.
FLATOW: What did you have to do? Did you suffer any ill effects?
Mr. REED: The first couple years, it wasn't so bad, but last year, I got asthma really bad during the run portion of the race. And it was horrible, because it was the Olympic trials for me, and I was in great physical condition, obviously and I was ready for the race. And once I got onto the run, I just - it pretty much shut my lungs down and stopped me in my tracks.
FLATOW: Well, we've already had the world's - one of the world's best, I think, marathoners drop out, have we not?
Mr. REED: Yes, Gebreselassie is - he pulled out, and you know, I don't really blame him, because those guys have to run in the city and the city's the worst place for that. I'm lucky, my venue's like 70 miles away from the city, and it's not going to be as bad as the city.
FLATOW: Jocelyn, what has the Chinese government been doing to improve the air quality?
FORD: Well, they've actually been working at it this for years. They have been installing air-pollution-control devices on power plants. They've been planting a lot of trees, a lot of greenery. They've been replacing coal briquettes as a form of fuel. They were used for cooking by poor families. They've been turning - giving people gas to cook with, that sort of thing. And they've introduced some of the most stringent emission standards in the world for automobiles.
Unfortunately, that's been more recently, so there are still not that many cars on the road that adhere to them. But they've also moved major polluting facilities, factories. There's a huge steel factory they moved out of the city. They've increased public transportation, built subways. They've - it's driven down the price of subways - of public transportation. It's about a nickel to take a bus here, and they've actually, for the Olympics, introduced wind power for (unintelligible).
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Really? How's that?
FORD: Yeah. It's actually (unintelligible) big facilities. It's not a huge, you know, citywide sort of thing...
FORD: But it's a demonstration.
FLATOW: Right. And you've been an observer there for years. How - has it made any bit of a difference?
FLATOW: Well, I think - let me step back a minute and put this a little bit in context. As everyone knows, China is the world's most populous country, and it's a developing country with a philosophy that's been develop first, clean up later. So, I must admit, I've been here for seven years, and the type of pollution has - over those years has changed. The smell of the coal used to really be stinging, especially in winter time, but now, there are a lot more cars on the road. So, it's a different type of pollution. And the other thing you have to remember is that China has also - is the factory world.
A lot of the pollution that was elsewhere, especially before 2001 - when I arrived in 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization - and after that, a lot of factories moved into the China. And of course, a lot of them are belching out dirty air. So, things are changed here very quickly. The type of pollution has changed, just, you know, not from a statistical point of view, I remember a lot more clear days when I first arrived but that's, you know...
FLATOW: Yeah. Matty, are you worried this year?
Mr. REED: Not particularly, no, because I, after last year, I had to go see the National Jewish Medical Center, and they put me on some asthma medicines which, you know, should put me on a level playing field with every other athlete in the race.
FLATOW: And so, you're going to be wearing a mask like many athletes?
Mr. REED: Yes, sure. You know, if I'm definitely exposed to the outside air conditions for, you know, a certain period of time, probably over an hour or two, I'll definitely put the mask on.
FLATOW: Would that affect your performance?
Mr. REED: I don't think so. My race is, you know, an hour-fifty long.
Mr. REED: So, you know, I'm subjected to the air conditions for quite a long time. So, I don't think wearing a mask will do anything really to help me.
FLATOW: You can just puff on, huff and puff on that bike with the mask on, nothing...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. REED: No, I won't be wearing a mask during the race, that's for sure. It'll just be before or after.
FLATOW: Yeah, and so you're exposed during the bicycle part.
Mr. REED: Yeah.
FLATOW: But you say you're out of town a lot of your...
Mr. REED: Yeah, we're quite away from the city, and it's, you know, it can be quite a beautiful place out there if you can see the blue skies and that sort of thing. So, you know, we're lucky that we're not right in the heart of the city.
FLATOW: Yeah. Jocelyn, does it change from day to day, the weather, dramatically?
FORD: It does, it does. If you have a rainstorm, it can blow the pollution away, and you can have a beautiful day or two, but then it starts sucking in again. I mean, part of the problem is that this is not a Beijing problem. It's all of northern China. So, the air can clear out for a little while, and even if the air - you know, Beijing has made tremendous efforts to clean up the air, but the air from other parts of northern China just come and fill in, you know, when...
FORD: After the weather system has moved on.
FLATOW: Right. 1-800-989-8255. Let's get a phone call or two in. Here, David from Sonoma, California. Hi, David.
DAVID (Caller): Yeah, hi. How are you doing?
FLATOW: Hi there.
DAVID: You know, I used to live in Los Angeles, and there's - I just want to point out - it's what they used to say - the fallacy of blue skies meaning clean air. In fact, it used to be quite the opposite, because some of the worse days of serious pollutants, rather than particulates like hydrocarbons and whatever, they would say, you know, on those days when it's blue, you're in the most danger.
FLATOW: The ozone, something.
DAVID: Well, and hydrocarbons, I don't know, whatever.
FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.
DAVID: But I'm just wondering, you know, how are we trusting the Chinese to be measuring other things in the air, other than just, you know, looking up and saying, you know, it's fine and clear?
FLATOW: Yeah. Jocelyn, any reply to that?
FORD: That's an excellent point. One of the problems with the way China does measure the air pollution is that it doesn't - at least the Beijing City government does not measure two very important elements, the particulate matter. They do have a measure for PM10, which is the particles that are sort of less than a human hair's width across and they can be dangerous. They can get into your lungs and in your bloodstream. But they don't measure something smaller than that called PM2.5, which is the finer particles...
FORD: That you need an electronic microscope to see. The other thing that they don't measure is ozone, which, of course, is - ozone that's close - that hugs the ground can be very dangerous. So, when they - they have this index called the blue-sky index, but there are problems with it. I was speaking with one of their lead experts earlier this week, and he said that after the Olympics, they are considering revising that - he would like to see them revise that - in order to get a more accurate read on the possible health effects.
FLATOW: Yeah. Matt, is it possible that the International Olympic Committee officials might delay a race or, you know, move it someplace else if it's too dirty, the air quality is not good enough?
Mr. REED: Yeah, I've heard - I've definitely heard that they could do that. I wouldn't be surprised if they do.
FLATOW: And would that be your kind of race? Or someone else's who's more concentrated in the capital?
Mr. REED: Definitely someone who's more concentrated in the capital there. I think, you know, as I said, more races are a fair ways out of the city, and it could be blue skies or, you know, it could be bad.
FLATOW: Yeah. What is the buzz among athletes there? I mean, are they really concerned about this? Or they do say, well, we're all in this together so it'll affect us all easily - equally?
Mr. REED: Exactly. That's what they're saying. You know, it's - you know, every athlete has the same condition. So, we're all in the same boat.
FLATOW: Mm-hm. And Jocelyn, I guess, whatever happens during these games, is it fair to say that the Olympics have played a big role in raising awareness about air pollution, and that the Chinese may be thinking more about it these days?
FORD: Absolutely, and I think that's a very positive long-term impact. It's been interesting being here during the time, because the air pollution has been quite bad over the years. But I've never heard as many of my Chinese friends talking about it. And part of the context is they want to make a very good impression on the world, and I've heard some young Chinese - for example, there's one woman who works for a major multinational. She got involved in a carpooling effort because she thought, you know, gosh, if foreigners are so concerned about the air, there must be a problem and I should do something about it. Now, you know, there are plenty of people who have other motivations.
FORD: I would say that there is a tremendous increase in awareness, and the scientist I was mentioning earlier said that they could make some important steps forward. For example, at present, China - Beijing does not have any air-alert system. In other words, when the air is so bad that it's dangerous for older people, young children, people with asthma, other health conditions, there's no public alert system, and that could be...
FORD: You know, something they would pursue after the Olympics. Public and officials will be more aware of the dangers and that sort of thing. So, I think there are a lot of...
FORD: Very long-term, very good impacts (unintelligible).
FLATOW: Do you think that the - yeah, are the - is the average Chinese citizen looking at this the same way as the government is? They have the same feelings about it, do you think?
FORD: The same feelings about that it's important...
FORD: To clean up the air? Yes. I mean, I think that what we're seeing is a shift from this, you know, develop first and at all costs and then clean up the air later. Of course, with the rising middle class, people expect higher quality of life and, you know, gray, you know, smoggy skies get you down.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FORD: It's just nicer to have a blue sky.
FLATOW: Well, here's a question from Second Life. Paxis Infinity (ph) says, what will China do after the Olympics? Are they just going to reopen the factories and start the pollution engines up again?
FORD: They certainly will. I mean, there are an awful lot of people who are on vacation for about three months in order to clean up the air for the Olympics, and there's a lot of personal sacrifice going on, construction (unintelligible).
FLATOW: So, when you say vacation, that's not a paid vacation?
FORD: Well, the people I've spoken to actually have said, yes, the factories are paying them.
FORD: And the economic hit - and I've met factory owners as well who say they're paying their employees - but I'm not sure if they're all getting full payments, but they're getting something. So, the people of Beijing are making a tremendous sacrifice, economically as well, to host the Olympics, in the individual level. But after the Olympics, some of the projects have long-term impact, and others, like the alternating cars, you can drive only on the day...
FORD: That your license, you know, even/odd days, depending on your license plate number. That, I expect, will come to an end. But the way China makes policy, sometimes, you know, they just spring something on you. They decide they have a good idea and within two days your whole - have to change your routines in life.
FORD: So, it's hard to say what'll happen after the Olympics. But yes, factories will come back. I expect more cars will be back on the road.
FLATOW: Mm-hm. Talking about air pollution on the Olympics this hour of Talk of The Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. Have they discourage - you've been a journalist there for seven years. Have they discouraged you from talking? Do they not want to discuss the air pollution? Or are they to talking about it with reporters?
FORD: Well, that's another positive development, that information, pollution information, whether it be about air or water, whatever, has been very hard to come by, but that has also changed. In May, they passed an information disclosure law, with a particular eye on information about the environment. I think there is a realization that public awareness and citizen action can help solve the problem. Their - Greenpeace gave a press conference about the Olympics, that there - (unintelligible) report cards recently. And you know, 10 years ago, they probably - well they haven't been here for 10 years but they - citizens' groups like that wouldn't have been allowed to speak out.
Now, having said that, there were public security people in the audience. I was told after the event that the hotel said, you know, these people are going to come in and listen. We don't know exactly who they are. But things like that are reported on, but they are allowed to speak out and citizen activism is becoming increasingly important.
FLATOW: Let's see if we can get one more phone call in. Holly in San Francisco, hi.
HOLLY (Caller): Hello. I wanted to ask the athlete there whether he has - always had asthma or if he developed asthma as a result of training in that pollution.
FLATOW: Matt Reed?
Mr. REED: I developed it - you know, I've been doing sports all my life, and I think I had very minor exercise-induced asthma over the last few years. I think it's been getting worse and worse. In particular, I'd go to some races where, you know, it's quite humid, or maybe they'd cut the grass or so, and I'd get a, you know, a mild asthma attack during the run, but I didn't think too much of it. And you know, I came across it once I got to Beijing, and you know, my performances were quite bad. I think that the second year I was there was - my run was really bad. And then last year, it just shut me down, and my run - I couldn't hardly run. I just couldn't breathe. So, I came back, and that was when I really, you know, pursued ways to fix it and I got it tested and found out that I really did have asthma.
FLATOW: Are they allowing athletes to have asthma medication in these Olympics?
Mr. REED: Yes, they are. It's a therapeutic exemption, and there are quite a few people that, you know, have exercise-induced asthma.
FLATOW: Mm-hm. So, what day can we watch for you to compete?
Mr. REED: My event's on the 19th. So, I think here in America, it's the night of 18th.
FLATOW: Mm-hm. And it all takes place in one day?
Mr. REED: Yep, yep.
FLATOW: And Jocelyn, you'll be following the weather in the Olympics?
FORD: I certainly will and a lot of other things that are going to be happening here. It's a very exciting time.
FLATOW: I'll bet. And I imagine things might - we saw today that the Chinese government has sort of let up on the Internet access a bit. Did you experience that?
FORD: A little bit that they have not yet made good on their promise to have complete free access. A lot of the sites by - Chinese dissident sites critical about the Chinese, and especially sites in Chinese that Chinese citizens might want to see are still blocked. So, unfortunately, the promise has not yet been made good on.
FLATOW: Mm-hm. And - but you suspect maybe that might happen, or not, given your experience?
FORD: Oh, gosh.
FLATOW: Tough to predict.
FORD: As the world keeps putting on more pressure, you never know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FORD: But I think - I'm not holding my breath about this.
FLATOW: All right, well, thank you, Jocelyn, for staying up late. It's about four or five in the morning there where you are, or something like that.
FORD: Ah, not quite four in the morning.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Get some sleep. And we want to thank you very much for yeoman's work for us today, and we'll watch your blog on sciencefriday.com. She has a featured blog on our website. Our man in Beijing, thank you, Jocelyn. Take care.
FORD: Thank you for having us.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Also, I want to thank you, Matt Reed, and good luck for you on the triathlon.
Mr. REED: Thanks for having me. Hopefully I can bring home a gold medal for you.
FLATOW: Well, you're welcome. We're going to have to take a short break and switch gears, and when we come back, we're going to talk about a tiny, little microscope that might solve lots of little problems using a new technology. So, stay with us. We'll be right back.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News.