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Smog Problems in Beijing: Causes and Effects Research Paper


Introduction

China has numerous environmental issues that have severe impacts on the biophysical environment of the country as well as on the human health (Chen, Zhao, & Kan, 2013). The major contributors of these environmental issues include the lax environmental oversight as well as the country’s rapid industrialization. A review of the state of pollution in China shows that the country has the highest level of pollution in the majority of its cities (Streets et al., 2007). The situation has been worse such that the Chinese government has taken the responsibility towards the mitigation of the environmental issues affecting the country. Significantly, there has been some progress as far as the reduction of the level of pollution in the country is concerned despite the government being criticized for having not done much. Such criticism has been seen in citizens’ activism to compel the government to ensure that environmental pollution decreases by making sound decisions that are focused on the reduction of the damages currently witnessed on the environment (Sun et al., 2004). One of the significant environmental problems in China nowadays is Smog. This problem has had enormous effects that warrant investigation (Zhang, Song, & Cai, 2007).

Sun et al. (2004) pointed out that smog has adverse impacts on the human health as well as on plants and vegetation. Since smog results from the accumulation of nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere, it is more likely that places that are highly populated are vulnerable to smog occurrence. This is attributed to the fact that high population increases the probability of smog formation due to numerous industrial processes. China is one of the top countries in the world in terms of air population. As such, this research focuses on the analysis of the casual factors of smog and its effects in Beijing, China.

Background information

Smog refers to a combination of various air pollutants such as volatile organic elements, and nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight to form ozone. The origin of smog can be traced back in 1900s when it was used in the description of fog and smoke combination that was experienced in London blanketing the entire city. However, in the modern reference to smog, it is considered to be a more complex mixture of a number of air pollutants that are responsible for the formation of ground-level ozone. In most of the cases, smog occurs in most cities of industrialized nations. This is based on the fact that most of the smog-forming pollutants originate from numerous consumer products, factories, power plants and automobile exhausts. Major urban areas contribute to the formation of smog due to increased use of boats, trucks, buses, industries, and cars

Towards the start of the year 2013, Beijing experienced a form of air pollution that had never been witnessed in the city before. It included the combination of haze and fog and caused respiratory problems to residents of the city. Over the past years, Beijing has been undergoing rapid urbanization. Normally, urbanization involves the expansion of city’s scale which attracts the growth of population, environmental pollution, traffic congestion, as well as the emergence of other types of urban problems. In the case of Beijing, achieving the objectives of urbanization has not been without numerous problems following the call for extraneous population. Based on the high rate of population growth in the city, excessive resources have to be consumed, which are more likely to increase the percentage of pollutants in the atmosphere. For this reason, the high level of air pollution in this city can be attributed to increased population, urbanization, as well as industrialization.

Causes of Smog

Most of the causal factors of smog include vehicles, factories, and consumer products. In fact, almost 50% of all smog is as a result of emissions by vehicles. The relationship between such factors and weather patterns is highly associated with the occurrences of smog. The most common types of smog are two, and include photochemical and sulfur smog. The photochemical smog is mostly formed in urban areas and it is caused by an increase in the level of nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbon vapors in the atmosphere when exposed to sunlight. On the other hand, sulfur smog forms due to the presence of high sulfur oxide levels in the atmosphere. The other causal factors are as discussed below;

    1. Coal

The utilization of coal in some power-producing plants leads to the formation of sulfur smog. This is because the process involves the discharge of high sulfur oxide concentrations. The effects may be worse if the level of dampness and air suspended has a high percentage of particulate matter. In addition, if coal is burnt, it leads to the generation of high amounts of smoke which increase the prevalence of smog occurrence. According to Zhou (2014), the effects of smog in China and other countries often lead to the closure of schools, airports, and roads.

    1. Vehicular and Industrial Emissions

The transport sector is known for high emission of pollutants due to the utilization of fossil fuels for use as sources of energy in buses, cars, trucks, boats, and motorbikes. Such emissions contribute a large percentage to the formation of smog. Industries also produce high levels of gaseous fumes and matter, which contribute to smog formation (Zhou, 2014). As a result, most of the smog that is witnessed in urban cities is due to the vehicular emissions. The primary components that contribute to smog formation are sulfur oxides, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and other volatile organic compounds. These components react with heat, sunlight, ammonia, and moisture leading to the formation of toxic particulates, vapors and other ozone components that constitute smog.

    1. Natural Causes

There are also some natural causes of smog such volcanic eruptions (Hu, Xu, & Jia, 2011). Volcanic eruptions lead to the emission of sulfur oxide, concentrated discharges, and particulate matter to the atmosphere which are the main components for the formation of smog. The percentage of radiocarbons in some plant lives is among the highest causes of smog in some areas, especially those with different types of trees.

The rate of industrialization in China is high, and has contributed largely to various forms of pollution that the country is experiencing nowadays. For example, air pollution in China is a significant health and environmental problem. The high level of air pollution in China is attributable to various pollution agents and activities such as the combustion of fossil fuels that result in the emission of harmful gases to the atmosphere alongside other particulate matter. Smog forms one of the major air pollutants in Beijing, which has caused enormous health challenges and environmental problems (Zhang, Song, & Cai, 2007). While the government of China is working hard to ensure that there are necessary measures to curb the increased level of air pollution and smog occurrences in the country, such objective cannot be achieved without understanding the specific causes of smog. This is attributable to the fact that any remedy and measures taken should focus on permanently dealing with the problem rather than just a temporal remedy. Thus, the major question is what causes smog in China and specifically in Beijing.

The increased level of air pollution and specifically smog can be blamed on the high rate of population growth in Beijing. For example, in 2012, Beijing had a population of 19,720,000 people. According to the recent estimates, the city’s population grows at a rate of more than 500,000 people each year. Such a high population strains the existing resources while at the same time increasing the consumption of compounds that emit gases that are harmful to the atmosphere. The major sources of energy in China include natural gas, electricity, gas, and goal (Hao et al., 2007). The combustion of coal gas has significant impact on the amount of harmful emissions released to the air. Such assertion is based on the fact that coal gas contains carbon monoxide, methane, and hydrogen gases (Sun et al., 2004). In addition, in case the coal gas undergoes incomplete purification, hydrogen sulfide gas, a major source of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide, will be present.

On the other hand, the growth in the population of Beijing has greatly increased the number of automobiles in the city as well as their use. As noted above, cars, boat, and trucks contribute a considerable percentage of the total air pollution in China. The implication in the case of Beijing, is that the high use of automobiles contributes greatly to the increased air pollution in the city and specifically, the occurrence of smog. In spite of the fact that the government of Beijing has taken a number of initiatives towards controlling automobiles’ growth in the city, there has been an enormous growth of cars and trucks in the China since 2011. For example, in 2012 alone, the number of automobiles in Beijing was more than 5,000,000 units. Given the high contribution of automobile’s exhausts to air pollution, it is more likely that the air pollution in Beijing will continue to increase with increasing automobiles’ and people’s population (Wang et al., 2013). Such argument can be backed up by the fact that about 30-60% of air pollution during the beginning of the twenty-first century came from emissions of automobile exhaust.

Smog occurrence in Beijing is also caused by the high percentage of emissions from the industries within the city and its neighbors (Shao, Tang, Zhang, & Li, 2006). When Beijing applied to host the Olympics Games in 2008, numerous policies were implemented that ensured that there was reduced rate of air pollution during the Olympics (Streets et al., 2007). Such approaches included an arrangement of the industrial structure in the city during which the Beijing coking plant was shut down and operations moved to Tangshan. During the period of the entire period of the Olympics, the city recorded an improvement of 60% in terms of the reduction in air pollution (Streets et al., 2007). In spite of this, everything changed after the games were over.

Additionally, the areas surrounding the city highly consume coal which is a major source of air pollution (Ma, Xu, Zhao, & Yan, 2012). The location of Beijing is in the neighborhood of Inner Mongolia and Sahnxi province, which are known for the production of coal in China. For this reason, much of the air around the city is polluted with various particulate matters that are significant for the formation of smog. Furthermore, Beijing is located in the midst of Yanshan Mountain and Taihang Mountain. As such, the city’s terrain is suitable for Heat Island Effect. Its low-lying terrain makes it hard for air pollutants from the neighboring areas to diffuse out (Sun et al., 2004). For this reason, Beijing has a high percentage of air pollutants which trigger the occurrence of smog.

The major challenge as far as the problem of smog and general air pollution in China is concerned is the fact that the country relies heavily on the production of steel which is burned using coal. The implication is that it can be significantly difficult to eliminate the use of coal in the country as it currently stands as China’s major source of energy. For this reason, solving the problem of smog in Beijing would call for robust measures to reduce the consumption of coal in the country.

Effects of Smog in Beijing

The fact that smog formation involves harmful air pollutants such as nitrogen oxide is enough conviction that smog can have disastrous impacts on the environment, property, as well as human health (Wang, Zhuang, Xu, & An, 2007). Some of the health consequences of smog include respiratory problems, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma (Zhang, Song, & Cai, 2007).

Smog has adverse impacts on different aspects of people’s health. For example, high levels of smog can cause irritation of the throat, chest, eyes, and nose. These effects are caused by the increased ozone levels that affect the respiratory system, leading to wheezing and coughing. Even though the irritation and coughing can disappear after a few days, smog can still damage the lungs, leading to permanent breathing difficulties. Damaging of the lung brings the conditions of pneumonia, emphysema, and bronchitis, due to the adverse effects of smog to the lining of the lungs. According to Sun et al. (2004), most of the respiratory problems lead to premature deaths or cancer diseases. According to empirical evidence, swallowing of smog particles can lead to premature deaths as evidenced in countries like Europe, USA, and Asia. This is attributable to the fact that some of these particles have the cancer causing carcinogens that may include benzene and butadiene. Exposure of asthmatic people to smog can worsen their conditions and lead to regular asthma attacks.

On the human health, more effects include low birth weights and birth defects. Exposure of pregnant women to smog leads to birth of children with various defects (Zhou, 2014). For instance, such women are likely to bear children with spinal column malformations and anencephaly. This is a condition of total absence or underdevelopment of brain parts. As a result, such babies have lower chances of survival or if they survive, they live with several abnormalities. In addition, exposure to smog puts people at the risk of rickets development. The victims develop rickets because smog blocks UV rays from reaching the service of the earth. As a result, the amount of Vitamin D produced is low due to the slow rate of metabolism of phosphorus and calcium available in the bone marrow.

The last effect on human health is that people are at a risk of plane crashes and road accidents. Such accidents are due to the interference caused on the natural visibility as well as the irritation caused by smog to the eyes (Sun et al., 2004). The drivers or pilots are then barred from seeing important signals or signs, therefore causing accidents. The effects of smog are very severe on human health since human bodies do not have adequate immunity against smog’s harmful effects. Highly populated areas are likely to engage in numerous industrial processes that lead to the emission of the particulate matter appropriate for smog formation. As a result, smog is common in such areas. In spite of the fact that smog may cover large areas, most of the people who are affected are kids, old people, and those with respiratory and cardiac complications.

On the other hand, smog also causes several negative effects to the plants and vegetation (Wang et al., 2013). For instance, crops, trees, and vegetables that are exposed to smog may have slow or no grow while others are damaged. In addition, exposure of such vegetables and crops like wheat, tomatoes, cotton, kales, peanuts, and soybeans to smog interferes with their infections fighting ability. This weakness makes them more susceptible to diseases. Due to poisoning of the natural environment which is the habitat or most animals, some of the animals end up dying. For instance, photochemical smog is known to cause irritation of sensitive plant and animal tissues thus, leading to the destruction of plants’ life and death of animals.

Concerns have been raised over the occurrence of smog and the increased air pollution in Beijing, as well as the effects of such pollution. As noted earlier, smog comprises of harmful gases including sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and dust (Sun et al., 2004). The 2013 smog occurrence had adverse health impacts on residents of Beijing. For example, there were high cases of cancer following the presence of minuscule cancer-causing particles following the smog (Zhang, Song, & Cai, 2007). In addition, smog occurrence causes heavy fog whether that can go for a number of days and can lead to death of people and destruction of vegetation and property.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The current problem that Beijing and the rest of China face with respect to the smog occurrence and general air pollution can be blamed on existing problems with the environmental supervision and management in the country. Over the past years, the government of China was actively-involved in the control of environment. For example, the enactment of several laws was a significant step towards the conservation and management of the environment. In spite of such achievements in terms of setting up environmental regulations, reportedly, the implementation and supervision of these laws has been slow. In addition, the environmental monitoring agencies have funding challenges which implies that the efficiency of such bodies regarding the supervision and management of environment is low. For this reason, there is a need for improved supervision and management of the environment in China. Such improvement should take consideration of the important aspects such as source for funds to ensure that the environment regulatory bodies are efficient in their monitory services. Such an approach will not only reduce smog pollution but also the consumption of coal.

Considering the adverse impacts of smog to the environment and the health of individuals, the government of china ought to come up with appropriate measures to deal with the caudal factors of smog, and other air pollutants. As such, cleaning the air is the only appropriate approach that can safe Beijing from future smog. Even though the smog occurrence of 2013 led to the adoption of a number of measures by the government, there is still the need for more actions. For example, to specifically address the impacts brought about by air pollution on the health of individuals, the government should increase its advocacy for clean energy transformation as well as the use of alternative sources of energy. This can be achieved by advocating for the use of natural gas in most of the areas that require energy rather than coal. Additionally, old automobiles that have high emissions should be banned from operations.

Lastly, the initiatives already started regarding environmental supervision and management such as the control of dust pollution ought to be strengthened. Such initiatives can be successful if a lot of emphasis is put on strict adherence to set laws and regulations on environmental protection. However, there is the need to put consider future urbanization cases while developing any environmental protection laws.

References

Chen, R., Zhao, Z., & Kan, H. (2013). Heavy smog and hospital visits in Beijing, China. American journal of respiratory and critical care medicine, 188(9), 1170-1171.

Hao, J., Wang, L., Shen, M., Li, L., & Hu, J. (2007). Air quality impacts of power plant emissions in Beijing. Environmental Pollution, 147(2), 401-408.

Hu, G., Xu, Y., & Jia, L. (2011). Effects of relative humidity on the characterization of a photochemical smog chamber. Journal of Environmental Sciences, 23(12), 2013-2018.

Ma, J., Xu, X., Zhao, C., & Yan, P. (2012). A review of atmospheric chemistry research in China: Photochemical smog, haze pollution, and gas-aerosol interactions. Advances in atmospheric sciences, 29(1), 1006-1026.

Shao, M., Tang, X., Zhang, Y., & Li, W. (2006). City clusters in China: Air and surface water pollution. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 4(7), 353-361.

Streets, D. G., Fu, J. S., Jang, C. J., Hao, J., He, K., Tang, X.,… & Wang, L. (2007). Air quality during the 2008 Beijing Olympic games. Atmospheric environment, 41(3), 480-492.

Sun, Y., Zhuang, G., Wang, Y., Han, L., Guo, J., Dan, M.,… & Hao, Z. (2004). The air-borne particulate pollution in Beijing—concentration, composition, distribution and sources. Atmospheric Environment, 38(35), 5991-6004.

Wang, J. F., Hu, M. G., Xu, C. D., Christakos, G., & Zhao, Y. (2013). Estimation of citywide air pollution in Beijing. PloS one, 8(1), e53400.

Wang, Y., Zhuang, G., Xu, C., & An, Z. (2007). The air pollution caused by the burning of fireworks during the lantern festival in Beijing. Atmospheric Environment, 41(2), 417- 431.

Zhang, M., Song, Y., & Cai, X. (2007). A health-based assessment of particulate air pollution in urban areas of Beijing in 2000–2004. Science of the total environment, 376(1), 100-108.

Zhou, W. (2014). Smog in China: Trends, Causes and Countermeasures. AMR, 1010-1012, 311- 314.

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