Games city breathes easier as haze clears

BEIJING Fri Aug 1, 2008 11:29am EDT

A clearer sky is visible above the skyline along the central business district of Beijing August 1, 2008. REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV

A clearer sky is visible above the skyline along the central business district of Beijing August 1, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Claro Cortes IV

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BEIJING (Reuters) - Olympics Games organizers could breathe easier on Friday after showers and a breeze cleared haze that had blanketed China's capital, raising fears of risks to athletes' health.

Skies over Beijing were the same gray as past days, but the rains overnight cooled temperatures and swept away much of the fumes and dust.

Citywide average air quality in the 24 hours up to midday on Friday was Grade I, or "good", the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau found, according to the Xinhua news agency.

Beijing officials have denied the haze is a pollution threat while also announcing emergency steps to kick in if air pollution is bad during the Olympics starting in a week on August 8.

Figures issued on the bureau's website ( www.bjepb.gov.cn ) showed the three pollutants used for the index fell on Thursday and again on Friday.

The main worry, tiny particulate matter from vehicles, factories and power plants, was at "good" levels at all 27 measuring stations, after brushing or exceeding levels designated unhealthy for sensitive people in past days.

The government has already taken half the capital's 3.3 million cars from streets -- by banning vehicles with odd or even license plate numbers on alternate days -- and has shut many factories around the city.

Yet even when Beijing says the air is clear, athletes and their coaches may have cause for concern.

Most Chinese air pollution standards are outside World Health Organisation guidelines. The index Beijing uses to declare whether the air is safe uses a citywide average, meaning some hotspots may still be above unhealthy levels, and some hazardous pollutants are not included.

Beijing residents also speak of "the autumn tiger" -- bouts of hot, hazy weather that can strike even as summer recedes -- that could bring back the haze.

Equestrian events host city Hong Kong was clear and mild on Friday after suffering two bad days of pollution earlier in the week.

(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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