Beijing Olympics and Air Pollution, info from the USOC

Beijing Olympics 2008

From Dr Randy Wilber, Senior Sport Physiologist of United States Olympic Committee (USOC):

I’ve been to Beijing eight times since March 2006 for the purpose of evaluating the environmental conditions. I have been to all of the Olympic venues and have taken precise measurements of the air pollution level at each venue site. In general, it is significantly worse than the US reference, Los Angeles, and it varies a bit from venue to venue. I have extensive data, but I suspect that information is too mundane/boring for your general interest. By “air pollution” I am referring to carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), ozone (O3), and particulate matter less than 10 microns (PM10). For comparison, a human hair is approximately 75 microns. As you know, Beijing by WHO, World Bank, etc. standards is considered one of the most polluted cities in the world, both air and water. [emphasis added]

Beijing sources of CO are cars, truck, buses. [emphasis added] You are well aware of the exponential increase in automobiles resulting from the expanding Chinese economy. Unfortunately, CO is the most difficult pollutant to filter and is colorless and odorless. So even on a “blue sky day”, CO can be a major health concern. CO is a biochemical “competitor” of oxygen at the 4 binding sites of a hemoglobin molecule, which transports oxygen from the lungs to muscles, organs and tissues in the body to keep us alive. Thus the implications for abnormally high levels of CO on elite athletic performance are very obvious.

Beijing sources of NO2 and SO2 are petroleum plants and coal-fueled power plants. [emphasis added] Approximately 75-80% of Beijing’s electrical power is generated from coal-fueled power plants. You don’t have to go very far in Beijing to see an active smokestack. And the far west side of Beijing has a very high density of industrial plants and petroleum refineries. The health/performance impact of NO2 and SO2 is on the lungs, and is particularly debilitating to individuals with asthma, exercise-induced asthma (EIA),and/or airway hyper-responsiveness (AHR). My concern is that an athlete who has perfectly normally functioning lungs here in Colorado Springs (the third “cleanest” city in the US according to the American Lung Association) will have significant problems in Beijing’s air pollution. An additional health/performance impact of SO2 is that it “burns” the eyes, which has implications for a precision sport like shooting or archery.

Ozone is produced through the combination of CO + NO2 in the presence of bright sunlight and high temperatures. [emphasis added] So O3 is most prevalent and potentially debilitating in July and August (Olympics to be held August 8-24, 2008). The health/performance impact is the same as NO2 and SO2, ie, compromised pulmonary function.

Beijing source of [particulate matter] is primarily construction dust [emphasis added], something that you are well aware of. I read a statistic the other day that Beijing has more “construction floor space” than all of Europe! I can certainly believe that from my visits there. In addition, Beijing is prone to the dust storms that sweep off the Gobi Desert and Mongolian steppe. Fortunately, the dust storms are most prevalent in the spring and we are optimistic that they will not be a factor in the summer, based on historical weather data and wind patterns. The health/performance impact is the same as NO2 and SO2, ie, compromised pulmonary function.

I was in Beijing in August 2006 and 2007 to measure heat, humidity and air pollution during the window of the 2008 Games (August 8-24). I did my work in conjunction with the IAAF World Junior Track & Field Championships (Chaoyong district) and the ISF Women’s Softball World Championships (Fengtai district) and other “test events”. Daytime temperatures were consistently in the low 90s. Relatively humidity was consistently in the 75% to 95% range. And of course the air quality was extremely poor and stifling. We are working just as hard on heat/humidity preparation as we are on air pollution preparation. I believe some nations will get so wrapped up in the air pollution issue that they will forget about the extremely challenging heat/humidity in summertime Beijing.

The U.S. Olympic Team has multiple strategies planned to prepare for/cope with the “potentially hostile heat, humidity and air pollution”. One strategy is to establish “alternate living/training sites” in South Korea.

ATS in South Korea has several advantages: 1) similar time zone to Beijing; 2) similar heat/humidity conditions relative to Beijing, which allows for optimal heat/humidity acclimatization; 3) minimal air pollution relative to Beijing, especially on the SK coast (no, you don’t want to acclimatize to air pollution, you want to avoid it as much as possible before you compete); 4) short flight time to Beijing (~1.5 hr); 5) Olympic-caliber training facilities based on the 1988 Olympic Games and 2002 Soccer World Cup, etc; 6) an American military presence and general “comfort level” and goodwill between the two nations; 7) greater access to American cuisine, which is extremely important to Olympic athletes whose diet is a critical component of training. The ATS model was used very effectively by USA Track & Field (Crete) and USA Swimming (Majorca Island, Spain) prior to the 2004 Athens Games, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those two sports won the most medals of any US teams.

Thanks Dr. Hill.