The reports are true. People have asked me if the international press is exaggerating: I can tell you, unequivocally, that it is not. This pollution is not at all fun and it is the worst that we have ever experienced. It’s not bad every day, all day, but when it’s bad, it’s terrible.
Manu and I have both lived and spent time in very polluted, Asian cities before. When Manu lived for a year (1999-2000) in Lanzhou, China, considered one of the most polluted of China’s cities and often showing up on a top-ten list worldwide, he suffered a lung infection that landed him in the hospital. Since Lanzhou is in a very narrow valley, pollution would get trapped for days on end and while he was there the idea was being floated of blowing a hole in one of the mountains to help let the air circulate (this was eventually shelved, as it was discovered that it would shoot the pollution downstream). For six years, 2003-08, Manu and I went to Delhi about six times a year with each stay averaging a week. The pollution was palpable at times and smog hung like a heavy mist, obscuring buildings in a blurred-vision haze.
For me, though, I thought the pollution in Kathmandu, where we were based for six years, was as bad as it comes. Because the city is in a valley that has seen rapid population growth, as well as a large increase in the number of vehicles plying its roads, many with noxious, black diesel exhaust spewing from behind, the Kathmandu Valley has a pollution line you can see. Above it the air is fresh, but below it, where most people live, the blackness gets into your skin. I remember that when I was there as a student in ’92 and did a lot of walking and biking around, it was impossible to get the underside of my forearms clean, since the darkness would not rub off of my skin, even when attempting to scrub it in the shower. During the relatively brief time that Manu and I rented a motorcycle in 2004, we would sometimes come home after driving around the Ring Road, which encircles the valley and serves as its central highway, lift our helmets off and look like we’d applied gobs of black eyeliner that had slipped into the corners of our eyes too. I always thought one of the worst parts of the city of Kathmandu itself, though, was Putalisadak (“Butterfly Road”), where I could often feel chunks in the air. No matter where I was or what I did during the day, if I’d been “out and about,” I’d blow black when I blew my nose.
Now I realize that my previous sense of bad pollution hovered around diesel fuel exhaust, which is undoubtedly horrendous, but feels more surface compared with the bad days we’ve experienced in Beijing (with diesel pollution the air can also become much cleaner very quickly, as evident during bandh, or strike, days in the Valley). When pollution levels exceed 350 micrograms per cubic meter (this is a measure of the level of small particulates called PM 2.5, which settle in the lungs and can enter the bloodstream), I can feel a sheen of pollution on my skin. There’s a chemical taste to it that lingers on my lips (is this what coal would taste like if I touched my tongue to a piece?). Days like these reveal the pollution’s intractable nature in a city where a chronic cough makes sense. I never thought I’d begin to think and talk about pollution the way I do food, but I’ve come to find that there are many more nuances to air pollution than what I’d understood before.
As I’ve scanned the internet for reports on worldwide pollution, I’ve also come to realize that because pollution comes in many forms, rankings are calculated in many different ways (Time Magazine’s 2012 rankings of the world’s most polluted cities consider “lead in the soil to toxins in the water and radioactive fallout in the air”). When considering the cities with the worst air quality, though, it becomes necessary to differentiate between ozone, year-round particle pollution, and short-term particle pollution, which results in different rankings. While some have argued that Beijing is getting a lot of international press and, surprisingly, acknowledgement from China’s leaders that something needs to change, other cities’ pollution problems, like Delhi, are being ignored by their governments, but are equally bad, if not worse (see the NY Times’ India Ink blog, for example). There is a certainly a point to such an argument, and that when cities hover in the mid-300’s (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers this “hazardous”), there is a problem. However, I’ve found that it’s possible to move around at the 300 level and to momentarily forget that the air is heavily polluted. Once you shift into the 500 level, it’s impossible to ignore.
While, fortunately, we missed the days in mid-January where pollution levels exceeded the U.S. embassy’s scale that tops out at 500, clocking in at 755, we’ve had a couple of recent 500+ days (the EPA defines this level as “Health Warnings of Emergency Conditions. The entire population is likely to be affected” – see this real-time pollution index report from the U.S. Embassy, which we check throughout each day). This is an entirely different experience. Wearing a mask becomes an essential necessity, as chunks move through the air and vision is limited (see the photo above taken from our 18th floor window on a clear day and on a 500 level day). There is no way to disregard or deny this pollution and sending our kids out into it, unless absolutely necessary, would be a travesty.
The thing about the pollution here is that it ebbs and flows. Within a twelve hour period, I’ve watched the levels range from around 175 to 500. When the wind picks up on a high pollution day, I’ve found myself hoping for, and maybe getting, a clear morning the next day (a recent morning had a level of merely 35). It’s hard to believe that an “unhealthy” rating of 164, the current pollution level in Beijing at 11 pm on a Friday, has me thinking that things are pretty good (don’t forget that NYC measured 19 on the day in January when Beijing was hovering in the mid-700’s and that Bakersfield-Delano, CA, the most polluted U.S. city, had only 2 days with levels just above 200 last year). But the situation here is dire. Now that we’ve experienced a couple of the 500+ days (most recently when a sandstorm came blew in from the Gobi Dessert), Manu and I have considered not returning to Beijing (before this we could see ourselves coming back for an extended period at some point in the future when Manu’s on a sabbatical to do more research). It really is debilitating and depressing to be trapped inside because the air outside is too poisonous to go into with the kids.
I keep hoping that the air will improve as we move into spring and summer, which has been an historically better time for cleaner air here. We do have to get through the sandstorm season, but the heavily subsidized coal-fed heating system that heats all buildings north of the Yangtse River (Southern China really suffered at times during this very cold winter, as there is no public heating network and private devices tend not to be as effective), will be shut off by the government on March 15th. The government has acknowledged concern in recent months and apparently is taking some measures to alleviate the pollution levels. (I got a kick out of how the government tried to blame an increase in pollution on Lantern Festival fireworks and also on street barbecues).
As our days in Beijing right now are always punctuated by at least some constant level of awareness of what’s going on with the rising and falling of pollution levels, I was both amused and saddened by a December 1970 National Geographic photo caption quoted in a book I’m reading (Aminta Arrington’s Home is a Roof over a Pig): “Everywhere workers, peasants, and officials travel by bike in a China that counts the private auto an extreme luxury. But they enjoy the blessing: an almost complete absence of pollution from car exhausts. Premier Chou Enlai believes that by starting late to industrialize, China may avoid the pollution now plaguing other nations” (Kindle edition 34%). Just as London cleaned its industrialization-fueled air, can Beijing (and other Chinese cities) do the same? I have no doubt that if any government in the world could enforce change, it would be China. The question is, though, with the potential price of limiting economic development, how much of a priority, really, is cleaning the air?
P.S. In post-industrialized countries, it’s easy to scoff at the seeming price developing nations are willing to pay for industrialization. Still , we see economic development and environmental degradation playing out in the U.S. today with the fracking process (listen to a gripping This American Life episode about Penn State’s involvement in fracking and read a review of “Promised Land,” a recent Hollywood take on the tensions surrounding accepting drilling in a community, or not). Sadly, it seems that less economically prosperous areas are the ones that often become enticed by the seeming prospect of easy money while sometimes being willing to overlook the negative consequences, such as poisoned ground water.