It’s hard to breathe when trying to complete a marathon on a clear day, but runners in Beijing on Sunday were confronted by a new obstacle: twelve times the recommended daily allotment of smog.
“When I looked at the state of the mask after 10 kilometers, I decided enough was enough,” Chas Pope told Deutsche Welle. “It felt pretty ridiculous, given we’re meant to be running for health and fitness.”
The U.S. Embassy measures PM2.5 air quality levels, and on Sunday at 10 a.m. the levels hit 310 parts per million (ppm), before topping 400 ppm later in the day. The World Health Organization recommends daily levels not reach 25 ppm.
A Chinese air quality monitoring station near the starting line that measures particulate matter, ozone, sulphur, and nitrogen dioxide levels all together read out a “severely polluted” score of 444. In Chinese, “four” sounds like “death,” according to the New York Times’ Sinosphere blog.
— Sergi Vicente (@sergivicente) October 19, 2014
“I was basically a vacuum cleaner,” William Liu, a 30-year-old banker, told Bloomberg News.
Local health officials recommended that everyone limit outdoor activity that day, and warned the elderly, the sick, and the young to avoid going outside at all. Organizers said the air pollution levels rose with inadequate warning to be able to cancel a race of this size, where almost half of the runners traveled from other countries to run it. The night before, they warned of “slight or moderate smog” on race day.
China admitted earlier this year that its cities were failing pollution standards, and announced various plans to clean up the air. Its own version of “cash for clunkers” was announced in May with the goal of taking 6 million of the dirties cars off the road, and also updated an old pollution law to crack down on the worst polluters. To cut down on air pollution, and tackle climate change, however, China will have to quit coal, according to a study led by the U.K.’s Center for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
The race rules state that there would be medical aid posts ever 5 kilometers, while ambulances would follow runners along the route. This is normal for most marathons, but the organizers also provided 140,000 sponges that runners could use to “clean their skin that is exposed to the air,” according to the Beijing News.
Scientists from the University of Melbourne looked at what happens to your lungs when air pollution levels spike. As you breathe in ozone and nitrogen dioxide, they interact on the lining of the respiratory tract and begin to cause oxidization damage — much more than either pollutant could alone.
Some of the runners have given up in the 2014 Beijing Marathon due to the serious air pollution in Beijing. pic.twitter.com/GoVpxcPcKH
— People's Daily,China (@PDChina) October 19, 2014
Zhang Zhenpeng, general manager of Beijing-based Inter Sports, told Beijing News that he hoped that, in order to protect public health, Beijing’s government would use a warning system for bad weather.
A cold front was expected to clear the smog on Monday.
— ChinaFile (@ChinaFile) October 20, 2014