Every winter, Beijing skies darken with pollution’s gray fog. Exercising becomes dangerous to the health since too much bad air is drawn in and and not enough good. Soot merges with Beijing’s snowfalls, solidifying the snow and making these dense packed black and white masses last.
Beijing’s foul air contrasts greatly to air quality elsewhere. Good air, which rates a 50 on the AQI (air quality index) means air absent of “ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide,” according to airnow.gov. When air rates over 150, it is considered unhealthy and a red pollution day is declared. Several American cities experience red, or purple (201-300 AQI values) pollution days a few times per year. Beijing’s index, by contrast, suffers over 110 days each year in excess of AQI 100. Several days in December 2007, air quality hit 500- meriting a hazardous maroon rating (US air quality scale).
In Winter 2006 and 2007, the pollution index also hit 500. On those days, we could not even see buildings less than a block away. Bleakness oozed. Chinese wore white face masks.
“Beijing lung”, our endearing term for hacking up black spittle, became a common sight and ailment among not just foreigners, but also among locals. People felt dizzy, lethargic, and disoriented. Food took on a slightly tinny tinge, and eyes watered.
Is Beijing’s polluted clime livable- yes. As bad as my description sounds, thousands of Beijingers more or less live, and work- hanging 30 stories off construction beams, or carting bales of cardboard and crushed plastic on precariously balanced bikes. According to a New York Times article by Aaron Kuo-Deemer, hospital visits and deaths do rise significantly during high pollution days. But it is amazing how much pollution the human body can withstand. Even though just walking on a 500 level pollution day feels like smoking several cigarettes, one recalls some heavy smokers live long lives. In fact, Jeanne Calment, the world’s oldest lady smoked until she was nearly 117. Other smokers at least live into their sixties.
But living a relatively healthy life among increasing pollution is not sustainable. Pollution cuts into productivity as asthma cases increase and lung diseases strike, creating pressure on China’s health care system. Last year cancer accounted for nearly 20 percent of Chinese deaths, according to China Daily. Estimates state “70 percent of China’s 2 million annual deaths attributable to the disease were pollution-related,” according to China’s State Environmental Protection Administration; also “a World Bank report said about 750,000 Chinese die earlier due to air pollution every year.”
The situation, despite government claims to the contrary, may be worsening. Although Beijing can celebrate an alleged 244 blue sky days where the pollution index remained below 100, part of the reason for the achievement attributes not to greater environmental sustainability, but to movement of monitoring stations to new locations- farther away from highway intersections.
Cleaning up sulfur-spewing factories and particulate-emitting coal plants, Beijing has progressed in reducing airborne particulate matter. However, with over a thousand cars added daily to Beijing’s streets, automotive pollutants are merely replacing industrial pollutants. Although Beijing has made great strides in improving car and bus emission standards and although it has increased mass transportation, opening two subway lines, and a light rail in 2007 and 2008, Beijing’s rapid growth and unfortunate location negate much of its environmental gains. Smog originating from northern provinces’ factories blow into Beijing’s dry mountain-surrounded plateau and is trapped. The dust only dissipates with a rain or strong wind. Otherwise, bleakness looms.
Despite recent environmental advances- the preponderance of cars, influx of people and high energy demands will contribute to increased pollution. Beijing will grow and the government will struggle to limit pollution. People will endure, but as the city grows, so too will the dark clouds looming above.
(This article was originally written in March 2008 )