Slideshow: air pollution in Beijing

As the Olympics approach, athletes have raised concerns about the Chinese capital’s smoggy skies. A series of haunting pictures by Beijing-based photographer Sean Gallagher illustrates the problem.

EDITOR’S NOTE: These pictures were all taken by Sean Gallagher, a British photographer based in China, between June 26 and July 2, 2008. All of the photographs were taken in Beijing, and most of them depict vehicles that have been left or abandoned under the raised ring roads in the city centre. In this series, the photographer has not set out to show ordinary cars in the Chinese capital; he uses abandoned vehicles as static objects, which illustrate the quantity of dust and sand that accumulates in the city’s air. Some of this dust is from naturally occurring sandstorms, but – as the photographer points out in his comment – much of it also comes from the booming construction industry.

Backgrounder: air pollution in China

Sixteen of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China. More than 500 million people live in Chinese urban areas including the capital, Beijing, where air pollution is damaging to human health.

“Extensive use of coal, the city’s location and the growing number of cars means the improvement in Beijing’s air quality is slow,” the Associated Press quoted Eric Falt, an official at the United Nations Environment Program, as saying last October. “Particularly worrying are the levels of small particulate matter… in the atmosphere which is severely harmful to public health.”

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Air Pollution Index (API) is a measurement of concentrations of chemicals and dust particles in the air. The WHO recommends an API measurement of 50 as its maximum safe daily level. May 2008 saw a daily API average of 131 in Beijing. May 27, 2008, saw the capital’s API peak at 463, over nine times the safe level.

As the Beijing Olympics approach, concerns are being raised about the quality of the air in the capital, particularly by athletes, some of whom have proposed wearing masks during the competition, training in other countries, or even pulling out of events.

Whatever happens at the Olympics, Beijing residents will continue to live with smoggy skies after the Games. According to the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning, the country’s air pollution caused over 400,000 premature deaths in 2003.


Sean Gallagher is a British photographer based in Beijing. His work focuses on environmental and social issues in Asia, with specific emphasis on China. More of his work can be seen at www.gallagher-photo.com

All text and images copyright © Sean Gallager Photography