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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soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. C E

    I just don't understand why the IOC even considered holding the Summer Olympics in a country with such bad air pollution, and I don't care that the Chinese Goverment is insulted because the athletes are wearing masks. They should just be grateful that they are hosting the event. Maybe next time, the air pollution factor will be considered in the IOC's choice for the sake of the athletes health.

    August 6, 2008 at 11:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Melissa, Los Angeles

    I don't think the athletes should have EVER had to apologize for wearing masks. People cannot assume that pollution of any sort can be resolved overnight. Beijing's air is filthy and I would not want to breathe that air. I too would wear a mask if I was there.

    At the rate the world is going – one day we may be paying for air in the form of oxygen tanks unless we start truly cleaning up our environment and not just for a few weeks or months.

    August 6, 2008 at 12:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Sam

    I agree. I find it ironic that we are sending the best athletes in the world to compete with some of the worst air quality. We would all agree it would be unacceptable to force athlete to compete in a room full of second-hand smoke. How is this any better? Athletes at that level will most certainly be affected by the air quality.

    August 6, 2008 at 13:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Michelle, Minneapolis

    The fact that the pollution levels are off the charts in China is not news to anyone. In fact, I was stunned to hear that they were selected to host this important event.

    Our athletes are putting thier health on the line by agreeing to compete in China. There is absolutely no guarantee that they won't suffer long term or permanent damage to their lungs by the exposure during this competition.

    If nothing else, I feel that providing masks for our athletes should be the responsibility of the Chinese government, and considered as simply another facet of the clean up actions already agreed to..

    August 6, 2008 at 14:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Sandra Robertson, Wadley Ga.

    Good afternoon Sanjay. Yes; I would definitely be sporting a breathing mask at the Beijing Olympics. The air looks to be so thick and this made me wonder whether the eyes are affected by the particles as well. I myself would probably need a full-face mask due to the sensitivity of my eyes. I really do not think apologies are necessary when it comes to protecting one's health in countries where pollution is this bad.

    August 6, 2008 at 15:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Tom

    Mask? I'd have on full body protection.... I can't believe athletes, who have taken care of their bodies and worked out so hard for so long would jeopardize their health and well being to participate. I know it is an honor to represent one's country at the Olympic games, but doesn't self-preservation (and a little common sense) kick in. I bet many in of the world's athletes who compete in the outside events go home sick. This borders on abuse to me. It's like sticking all these people in a stadium with 10,000 smokers and telling them to preform at their peek level. It is just never going to happen.

    August 6, 2008 at 15:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Miller

    I would rather insult the Chinese and be in the running for a medal than be polite and lose

    August 6, 2008 at 19:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Joanna

    I just returned from Beijing less then a month ago and I have to say that I couldn't imagine having to compete in that air. As if the heat and humidity aren't bad enough to compete in, you have to add the smog as well. Sometimes I found walking around in it bad enough, and all my pictures look like I was walking around in a thick fog. I don't think the athletes should apologize for wearing masks, they're just trying to stay in top form. And isn't that what the Olympics are about, The top athletes in the world competing against each other at their peak levels.

    August 6, 2008 at 22:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Anna K.,Ithaca College

    Would you expect someone to apologize for not drinking the water in mexico?

    August 7, 2008 at 19:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Maureen

    I think it is a real concern. The air in China ultimately becomes the air we all breathe as it mixes into the global atmosphere. The Chinese government needs a wake up call to install environmental policy to improve their air quality. Actions (like the athletes made by wearing masks due to health concerns) should be taken seriously and not defensively.

    August 7, 2008 at 19:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Jon

    We are planning a trip to China next April. We will be there for 4 days .(as part of a longer cruise) How effective are the masks? (N95?) My wife has some problem with environmental Asthma.

    August 8, 2008 at 09:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Mike

    It is silly to think that the Beijing officials or officials from an authoritarian country cares about any individual's health. It is ridiculous for them to extend their big brotherliness on the poor athlete. I think all athlete attending the event and all spectators should wear a mask.

    August 8, 2008 at 23:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Ann

    I've been to China twice in the past 18 months (just returned last week). The air quality has improved a little but it's still quite poor. Each time, i stayed for 10 days and only experienced 1 day where i was able to see look out my hotel window and clearly see buildings beyond 1/4 mile away. Other days, it looks like Gotham city; all gray and foggy and misty due to the air pollution. Moreover, my allergies kicked in full-time during those 2 trips. Sanitation of food can also be a problem, even in nice 4/5 star hotels. I was over there for work both trips but i would not go back over for any pleasure trips. If you need to go, get in, do what you need to do, and get out as fast as you can. It's a shame since it was a beautiful country. Whatever you do, don't even brush your teeth with the water out of the faucet or eat anything that was not cooked/heated. I wasn't as careful about the food the second time and had intestinal issues for days. Getting tested for parasitic worms.

    August 9, 2008 at 00:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. frank

    It was quite appropriate and brave for the athletes to wear masks when the level of pollution is so high. Pollution of this level can also contribute to heart attacks, and can increase the risk of illness or death in people exposed, as was shown by studies done in Los Angeles. Children are especially sensitive. That the Chinese government puts appeareance and "face" above both their own population's health and that of the visiting athletes should come as no surprise to anyone who reviews their behavior and record not only in Tibet, but also the massacre of their own people inTienneman Square...

    August 9, 2008 at 15:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. jackie

    In my opinion, in the future, it may be necessary to have the Olympics at enviornmental healthy places on the planet. This may be a good thing because it will cause competition in countires than can provide the level of clean air necessary for all our athletes.

    August 10, 2008 at 00:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Sue Co Springs

    No, the athletes should not apologize!!! We lived in Hawaii for 3 years and once in awhile would get something called VOG (volcanic smog). I was an avid runner at the time and it would make gasp for air. It would also send my son into an asthma attack. What was the IOC thinking??

    August 10, 2008 at 12:32 | Report abuse | Reply
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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.