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What the smog can’t conceal

Chu Long

Readinch

The air quality crisis confirms China’s once-bold environment ministry has become sluggish, weak and bureaucratic, writes Chu Long.

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Since the autumn, a series of polluted “hazes” in cities across China – and discussion of that now ubiquitous term for fine particulate matter, PM2.5 – have attracted widespread public attention. So too has the official response: while urban air pollution fast became a focus of public anger, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), which is responsible for monitoring air quality, took the opportunity to show its sluggish and bureaucratic side.

In Beijing, the gulf between reported air quality and the reality experienced by city residents became a sharply divisive issue. At the same time, air quality data from unofficial sources spread rapidly via new modes of communication. That people now disregard government data points to the dissatisfaction they feel regarding the state’s environmental protection apparatus.

But a few recent events began to mollify people. First, premier Wen Jiabao stressed that environmental monitoring data must tie in more closely with people’s actual experience. Then, vice-premier Li Keqiang called for preparations to start for the monitoring of PM2.5, which specifically are particulates 
measuring 2.5 microns in diameter. Finally, the MEP joined the table: at the Seventh National Conference on Environmental Protection, minister for environmental protection Zhou Shengxian announced a detailed timetable for the monitoring of PM2.5 and ozone. 

In 2012, China will begin monitoring these two pollutants in Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei province, the Yangtze River Delta, the Pearl River Delta and other key regions, municipalities and provincial capitals. By 2016, the entire country will monitor PM2.5. Zhu Jianping, deputy director of the MEP’s environmental monitoring department, said that this plan presents no technical problems: in principle, monitoring PM2.5 is no different from monitoring the larger particulates known as PM10. The monitoring sites can be located alongside PM10 monitoring sites, meaning there is no need to establish a new network – PM2.5 measuring equipment can simply be added to existing stations.

So, why did it take so long? People find it difficult to comprehend how, if there’s no technical obstacle to measuring PM2.5, the ministry has only responded now. And why choose to proceed incrementally, dragging the process out to 2016? To date, the MEP has taken no effective measures to prevent a further deterioration in air quality. Air pollution is already being blamed, at least in part, for rising lung cancer rates in Beijing
. How will there be time to tackle the problem if the country follows the ministry’s timetable?

As environment officials dithered over their response to the crisis, several Chinese NGOs, including Green Beagle, launched their own air-quality monitoring projects. The newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily took the opinion that while pollution monitoring by civil-society groups may not be as scientific as government monitoring – officials use machines that cost 700,000 yuan (US$110,000) a piece; the model used by the NGOs costs 25,000 yuan (US$4,000) – it would be a mistake to underestimate the power and momentum of civil society in this field.

If the government again neglects the issue of air-quality monitoring, it is bound to provoke an even greater public outcry and a more intense challenge. For this reason, the MEP must take off its mask of arrogance, listen to public opinion and strive to improve its service through a better relationship with the public.

Three years have passed since the sub-ministerial State Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) was promoted to ministry level and became the MEP. China’s environmental pollution has only worsened in that time. Currently, one-tenth of the country’s soil is affected by heavy metal pollution; 26% of its “key environmental protection cities” have air that does not meet standards; one-fifth of the country’s water is classed as worse than grade five, the lowest grade in quality; and many other key environmental indicators have deteriorated since 2008. As one MEP official said: “Although there has been some local improvement, there has been no halt in the general decline of the overall environment.”

The ministry’s impact is still weakening. In 2011, Luliang Chemical Industry illegally dumped 5,000 tonnes of chromium waste in Qujing, in the south-western province of Yunnan, causing severe pollution. The MEP forced the company to close, but soon the factory resumed production, in clear violation of the government order. The ministry’s punitive measures could not achieve their desired result and they had no way to effectively sanction this company.

It is a shame that it has come to this, because the main environmental arm of the state was once one of the most pioneering and innovative government bodies, which earned a lot of public trust. From its series of crackdowns, known as “environmental storms”, to the enforcement of regional planning restrictions 
 when it refused to approve projects for law-breaking local governments until changes were made  SEPA used to pursue its policies to the end, drawing the attention of the entire nation to the importance of China’s pollution problems.

There was significant momentum behind the “environmental storms”, but they never became a regular part of the system. At the time, observers and officials stressed that relying on occasional crackdowns to protect the environment wouldn’t work in the long term. China needed to strengthen its laws on environmental supervision and management, its standardisation and so on. Now China faces a situation where environmental measures are neither systematised nor implemented through crackdowns. The environment will continue to suffer the consequences.

Over the past few years, the pursuit of economic gain by special interest groups has grown more intense. These interest groups have all grabbed a firm hold of economic and political power, to the extent that they are now outside the scope of the MEP’s jurisdiction and supervision. Just look at the way the pollution incidents involving, for example, PetroChina, CNOOC and Zijin Mining Group, unfolded. Before the incident, the MEP could not take part in decision-making; during the course of the project in question, it could not carry out any meaningful supervision; and after the incident, it could not implement punitive measures. Yet MEP officials often end up resigning in the aftermath of these disasters.

Some say that since interest groups hold the reins of power and the MEP is weak, it is difficult to achieve anything. I disagree. Interest groups are a fact of life. Local governments will always be powerful. But isn’t it the responsibility of the central authorities to surmount these difficulties and implement policy according to China’s guiding principle of “scientific development”? Exactly as the central government has tried to regulate house prices, can’t they work to break the blockade formed by special interests and local government? Can’t practical difficulties be overcome by determination? In Wen Jiabao’s words, can’t one “offer up one’s life for one’s country, accept hardship and forgo personal gain”?

If a government body can only show initiative and responsibility when it is small, weak and non-bureaucratic, then perhaps the MEP should be dismantled and demoted back to agency status! Here I joke, of course, but the fact remains that interest groups have been allowed to grow powerful and the MEP seems powerless. There is a serious lack of momentum behind environmental protection in China's current political structure.

It recently emerged that the boundaries of the Yangtze River’s last remaining ecological conservation area have finally been “adjusted”. This seems to confirm that there is no way to stop those forces that put profit before nature. The ecological deterioration of the entire Yangtze River system looks inevitable. But reinvigorating China’s environmental movement could reverse the trend. Every nation experiences environmental pollution as part of its development path. Time and again, the solution is to take on those who profit from pollution. The victims of pollution, the Chinese public, already know this and have started to take action. They are fighting back against polluting interest groups, as we saw in protests against petrochemical plants in Xiamen and Dalian.

This is good news for the environment and for society. Only if the public becomes a stakeholder able to restrict the polluting actions of local government, big business and other interest groups, rather than just waiting passively for the MEP to take action, will environmental protection and social stability in China have a chance. And only then will “scientific development” policies be genuinely implemented.

Just waiting won’t bring China clear water and blue skies. Action is required. Whether the MEP dares to do something, or is capable of doing something, will finally show whether it’s at the vanguard of scientific development, or simply a redundant, bureaucratic organisation.

Chu Long (a pen name) is a university professor in Guangzhou.

Homepage image by 
dtraleigh

 

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中国南方空气和水体的潜在污染物载体:关于(PM-2.5)多水高岭土的研究

过去几年,纳米技术研究者揭示了一个事实,就是粘土矿物多水高岭土拥有中空、管状的结构,该结构会携带并缓慢释放诸如农药、除草剂和除菌剂的物质。目前该领域的研究还在进行,包括其商业应用的研究,涉及多水高岭土的非同寻常的性能和纳米技术(参考美国政府的许可证明)。

多水高岭土是华南岩石风化的产物,由于它能捕获这些农药中的部分化学物质然后将它们缓慢地释放掉,这就意味着现在该地风和水对高岭土的侵蚀会让有害的农药化学物质更容易流动到能被人类摄入和吸入的地方。水的侵蚀使含有化学物质的高岭土进入地表水源,化学物质在那里缓慢地释放。香港饮用过滤水源已知含有高岭土(Parham,1978),而高岭土里是否含农药化学物质就不得而知了。

华南大部分地方的森林很久前就遭到了砍伐,水土流失严重(Parham et al., 1993)。另外,大规模的地壳运动伴随城市化也增加了高岭土成为主要空气污染物飞可能性。所以,在六个月的干燥季风季节里如果含化学物质的高岭土被风吹起,它就会被人吸入体内并在人体能释放化学物质。高岭土和欧胡岛、夏威夷次地表腐泥岩里的农药残余关系密切,这表明农药可能留存于高岭土孔隙里(Miller et al., 1988)。另外,利沃夫等(Lvov et al., 2008)已经表明杀菌剂可以留存在高岭土的孔隙里,之后被释放出来。

关于华南空气里是否含有管状高岭土的研究看起来合情合理。这样的研究也许也会阐明华南留存在高岭土孔隙里的、对人类健康不利的农药化学物质的命运。

参考资料:
US government licenses halloysite-related patents to applied materials, (accessed 1/6/11), http://www.patents.com/patentscommunity/blogs/KKyrylyuk/my-blog/225/us-government-licenses-halloysite-related-patents-to-applied-minerals

Lvov, Y. et al., 2008, Halloysite clay nanotubes for controlled release of protective agents, (accessed 1/6/11), http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19206476

Miller, M.E. et al., 1988, Hydrogeologic characteristics of subsoil and saprolite and their relation to contaminant transport central Oahu, Hawaii, Water Resources Res. Ctr. No. 178, 76 p.

Parham, W.E., 1978, (Abst.) Tubular halloysite in filtered water of Hong Kong, 15th Annual Mtg. Clay Minerals Society

Parham, W.E., Durana, P.J., and Hess, A.L. (eds.), Improving degraded lands: promising experiences from South China, Bishop Mus. Bull. in Botany 3, Bishop Museum Press, 1993, 241

A potential pollutant carrier in South China's air and water: a suggested (PM-2.5) halloysite study

Nanotechnology researchers in the past few years have exploited the fact that the clay mineral halloysite with its hollow, tube-like structure, might be used to carry and slowly release such substance as agricultural pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Research continues in this field as well as in many other potential commercial uses involving halloysite’s unusual properties and nanotechnology (see US government licenses).

Because halloysite, a common weathering product of South China’s rocks, is able to entrap some of these agricultural chemicals and then release them slowly suggests that erosion of halloysite by wind and water from this region’s land currently may be facilitating the unwanted movement of agricultural chemicals to where they could be ingested or inhaled by humans. Water erosion may carry chemically-charged halloysite into surficial water supplies where the chemicals would be released slowly. Filtered water supplies used for human consumption in Hong Kong already are known to carry halloysite (Parham, 1978) but it is not known whether or not the halloysite is carrying agricultural chemicals.

Large parts of South China long ago were deforested and still are subject to heavy erosion (Parham et al., 1993). In addition, large-scale earth movements associated with urbanization increases the likelihood that halloysite may be a significant air contaminant as well. Thus, if any chemically-charged halloysite is transported by wind erosion during the six month, monsoon dry-season it could be inhaled by humans with a subsequent internal chemical release. Halloysite is closely correlated with pesticide residues in the subsurface saprolite in Oahu, Hawaii, suggesting that the pesticide may be being held in within halloysite tubes (Miller et al., 1988). Further, Lvov et al. (2008) have shown that biocides can be retained within halloysite tubes and released later.

A study to determine the presence or absence of tubular halloysite in South China’s air seems reasonable. Such a study might shed light as well on the fate of any agricultural chemical carried in the halloysite tubes as related to potential adverse effects on human health in South China.

References

US government licenses halloysite-related patents to applied materials, (accessed 1/6/11), http://www.patents.com/patentscommunity/blogs/KKyrylyuk/my-blog/225/us-government-licenses-halloysite-related-patents-to-applied-minerals

Lvov, Y. et al., 2008, Halloysite clay nanotubes for controlled release of protective agents, (accessed 1/6/11), http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19206476

Miller, M.E. et al., 1988, Hydrogeologic characteristics of subsoil and saprolite and their relation to contaminant transport central Oahu, Hawaii, Water Resources Res. Ctr. No. 178, 76 p.

Parham, W.E., 1978, (Abst.) Tubular halloysite in filtered water of Hong Kong, 15th Annual Mtg. Clay Minerals Society

Parham, W.E., Durana, P.J., and Hess, A.L. (eds.), Improving degraded lands: promising experiences from South China, Bishop Mus. Bull. in Botany 3, Bishop Museum Press, 1993, 241


环保部傲慢的面具

你在文中写到“环保部门必须摘下傲慢的面具”。但是,在比如是否开始监测PM2.5这类问题的决策上,环保部门和周生贤拥有多大的权力,我仍然不清楚。你觉得这是环保部门应当自己做决定的事吗,或者,你觉得有必要让温家宝总理或其他政府高官参与尽力吗?实行PM2.5标准是很重要,但是自1996年以来中国的PM10标准就没有再修正过。中国每年100ug/m3的PM10标准仍然远高于世界卫生组织第一阶段目标值70ug/m3。那么在过去的15年里环保部自身有权力去降低高危险性的PM10标准吗?

MEP mask of arrogance

You write that "MEP must take off its mask of arrogance." But, I remain unclear as to how much authority MEP and Zhou Shengxian really have in making decisions such as whether to begin monitoring PM2.5. Do you think this was a decision MEP could have made by itself or was it necessary for Premier Wen Jiabao to get involved and other higher level government officials? Implementing a PM2.5 standard is important, but since 1996 the Chinese PM10 standard has not been revised. China's annual PM10 standard of 100ug/m3 is still well above the WHO interim 1 target of 70ug/m3. Would MEP have had had the authority by itself to lower the dangerously high PM10 standard in the last 15 years?


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