Letters from China: Record smog levels

Much ado has been made in the Western media recently about the pollution in Beijing, which is breaking records. A few days ago, Beijing was hovering around 755 points on the Air Quality Index (AQI), and reportedly in some districts it even went to nearly 900; this is notable because the scale only goes from 1 to 500—it is literally off the charts. By comparison, Los Angeles and New York rarely hit over 100 points. Reporters and environmental talking heads are comparing the situation to London’s “killer smog” of 1952, when pollution smothered 4,000 Londoners to death. I never realized how legitimate, though misplaced, my mother’s concerns were for my safety in Beijing. 

On days when pollution is particularly bad, I feel myself get short of breath even just walking from one end of a block to another. My throat always feels scratchy these days, and it’s not because I have a cold. You’d be crazy to run outside in Beijing, and even people who run on treadmills inside have stopped because the air quality inside buildings is not magically much purer than the air outside, either. Many expatriates I know have even purchased air purifiers for their homes that cost more than $1,000. 

They say living in Beijing is the equivalent of smoking about seven cigarettes a month. I suppose that’s why so many people here smoke—if they have to inhale dirty air anyway, they might as well enjoy their cigarettes as they watch the town burn down. 

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Some friends of mine still try to keep fighting the good fight, though, employing various strategies. One friend of mine cycles everywhere, but if he can’t see a particular building in the morning from his window because the haze is so thick, he takes public transportation. Many of my friends have expensive masks with expensive air filters for cycling, and one of them wears his whenever the AQI is over 400 just for casual strolls. It is black and beak-shaped and looks like a villainous Venetian mask. You know the pollution is bad when you’re walking to the bar in a faux fur coat and giant floppy hat but your male friend still looks scarier than you. 

I haven’t purchased any protective gear yet, but I comfort myself with the thought that my inherent “indoorsy” personality will save me. I take taxis and public transportation everywhere these days, and I don’t exercise—to protect my precious lungs, of course. I now use my neti pot more frequently and like many other expatriates who are too poor to afford air purifiers, I now keep many plants inside my apartment. 

I must say that I am surprised by the way the government has handled the situation. (Full disclosure: My 9 to 5 job is under the government.) For once, state media has not swept negative reports under the rug and front page after front page of state-owned newspapers have featured photos of masked citizens against white-out backdrops. In the past, the Party quickly squashed reports of severe pollution, but this time, it has allowed Beijing pollution to become China’s big story. The government has ordered officials to curb driving and closed down factories, among other measures. It seems that this time, pollution has hit a critical point the Party can no longer ignore. Though the problem won’t be solved overnight, it seems inevitable that Beijing must rein in the air quality, and it won’t be the first city to do so. Still, for now, I’m not holding my particle-filled breath. 

Of course, there is always a silver lining on every polluted, smoke-filled cloud. One day, I was standing outside with my friend Tilly, complaining to her about a giant zit I had on my face. She assured me I needn’t worry and that she really couldn’t see it. “Thanks,” I said to her, moved. “You’re a good friend.” My eyes blurred with emotion, or so I thought before I realized it was just the haze. In retrospect, I’m not sure that was actually Tilly, but I can rest easy knowing that whoever it was never got to see this zit. 

 

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