August 6th, 2008
11:13 AM ET

The nitty gritty on Beijing's air

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Chief Medical Correspondent

With the Olympics coming up, there is a lot of concern surrounding the pollution. As the athletes have started to arrive, many of them are wearing masks. They say it is to protect themselves, whereas some in the Chinese government say it is only to be insulting.

Here are a few things to consider. According to a new study out of Northwestern University, the level of particulate matter in the air in Chicago is 20 micrograms/m3. That probably means nothing to you, other than telling you the average level of pollution of a big U.S. city. Here is what caught my eye. The level of particulate matter in Beijing: 260 micrograms/m3 - 13 times as much as Chicago. (See Study)

It is well known that high levels of particulate matter can cause inflammation in the lungs, and that a protein called Interleukin 6 is released in response. The end result may be that your blood gets a little stickier and thicker. That can cause problems such as heart attacks or strokes, especially in those with a pre-existing history.

Keep in mind when an athlete is in the throes of competition, they take in more than 100 liters of air a minute as compared to a spectator at rest, who takes in an average of 6 liters a minute. Regardless, anybody who is not used to that level of pollution is going to notice it. I was in Beijing not that long ago, (Watch Video) and I could taste those particles, smell it and feel it in the back of my throat. 

As things stand now, Beijing has taken half the cars off the road with a system of odd and even license plates. They have shut down four out of five giant furnaces in the city for the time being.

Today, we learned the athletes apologized for wearing the masks.  What do you think? Is this a real concern? Would you wear a mask during the Olympics as an athlete or even as a spectator?

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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.