February 19, 2013

Notes on China, Part II: Pollution in Beijing

(Above photos heading to, at, and returning from a local fish market near where my friend N's driver Ge Shi Fu lives. This is on a medium-bad pollution day. Also, I promise, this is my last day of the grim-but-fascinating-to-me Beijing stuff. On to the fun stuff next.)

There's so much to say about the gripping, grim, grimace-inducing pollution that overtook Beijing for much of our stay there in January. We'll start with the fact that the pollution was so bad that even the Chinese government admitted it is bad, which is kind of like the NRA admitting that guns in schools might be a bad idea. It does not happen. For years and years the pollution in China has been getting worse and worse--this isn't a new problem that appeared on the occasion of the 2008 Olympics.  It's largely attributed to the extreme rise in manufacturing, the surge of car usage (and a huge population), and the continued use of coal energy. It's hard to know what else is causing it but much of the pollution alleviation "plan" depends on how much wind blows through the city (very unreliable) or the government's decision to make changes like stopping factory pollution or seeding clouds for rain, like they did during the Olympics. I should also add that the pollution isn't only horrible in Beijing, it's just as bad in dozens and dozens of other cities in China. 

It's one thing to imagine pollution -- we talk abstractly in New York about ecological impact and climate change and gawk at garbage bins overflowing with could-be-recycled bottles on Bedford Ave and the value of eating organic because it's "good" for the environment or our bodies. It's another thing to wake up with your throat stinging, the air smelling like dirty tires, your eyes achy, your skin broken out like you're 13 and waves of nausea, because the air you're breathing and in contact with is so dirty. It makes our daily choices seem very small, because all in all most of us (in the States) live in a relatively very, very clean place with an enormous number of healthy options. 

A primer on air pollution numbers: The US Embassy offers hourly readings of the pollution, with a scale (the Air Quality Index) that goes from 0-500. Under 50 is thought to be healthy, above 100 is unhealthy, above 300 is hazardous, 500 was at some point deemed "crazy bad," a made-up status that nobody thought they'd hit, but then they did (and now do regularly), though 500 is still "off the charts." If you're ever in China, or just curious, I recommend the China Air Quality app, which will give you both the US Embassy air quality index rating and the Chinese Embassy rating. 99.9% of the time, the US Embassy number is significantly different, and higher, than the Chinese Embassy's. 

There are various readings of what the levels -- measured as density of particulate matter in the air -- were measured at during our trip, though consistently over 300.  But, at one point after we raced home from the Great Wall, seeing the pollution literally wave over us from our van, the app our friends were using read 826, which is basically so toxic that at comparable levels in other cities, birds have (supposedly) been seen falling out of the sky. Others liken it to sitting in a closed garage with your exhaust running. Or, smoking a pack of cigarettes with every few minutes of breathing. This might be hyperbole (these are all "what it's equal to" descriptions we heard from people there), but it feels like willingly shortening your life to breathe that air. 

As I mentioned yesterday, we were in Beijing visiting American friends who live there with their 4 young children (ages 8 months, 2ish, 4ish and 6ish), so they take extra precautions when it comes to the pollution because kids are far more sensitive. There's high risk of developing asthma, and countless other health effects. They keep their kids inside when the pollution reads above 250, and try not to go out much themselves. Fortunately, their apartment is connected to a mall with a bunch of decent restaurants and a grocery store, so they can at least go beyond the walls of their apartment. They spend a lot of days with kids wandering around the empty mall. Not great when you're used to parks and beaches and a backyard and a garden. You can imagine how destructive this becomes when you're trying to run daily errands and all your plans are constantly being thwarted. New York just wouldn't function. Or perhaps people would leave. 

You probably why anyone would live there or how people just carry on with their lives, but the government puts a lot of time and energy into denying pollution exists, that it has a health impact or that anyone should be worried about it. And, people normalize it, as many of us probably would too. 

Anyhow. Reading the pollution levels on your phone becomes a multiple-times-a-day event. You wake up, take a reading. Eat lunch, take a reading. Every time you go out, you take a reading. It's not uncommon for the pollution to blow in and out of the city in a matter of hours, so you can go from 100 to 400 between meals. The way this looks is that you can be driving around 3rd Ring Road, one of the big beltway-like loops that encompasses the entire city, on your way to visit a hutong and eat some dumplings. As you're driving, visibility starts rapidly dropping. Tops of buildings begin to disappear and you start to taste the air. Your throat starts to scratch, but you drive on. By the time to get to your destination, you can't see the building across the street. You can stare straight at the sun in the middle of the afternoon because it's so blocked by particulate matter. Everything is dirty and dense and gray-brown, like you're in a never ending sandstorm. There is no skyline, no sunset, no sunrise. 

On the first day we saw the pollution, to be honest, Jacob and I were a little excited. We observed it as pure novelty and Delillo's Airborne Toxic Event was forefront in our brains. But it gets old fast once you start feeling horrible and makes you very grateful that air quality isn't something we've ever had to bother really worrying about.  

Once we got back to the States, everyone around us seemed aware of the horrible pollution in Beijing for the first time because of the aforementioned record-breaking numbers that led to articles in international papers. And, the good news is, it appears to have been so bad  it's caused a stir amongst the Chinese as well. Even if it doesn't lead to longstanding change, it leads to more internal awareness and pressure for change; currently the papers like to tell citizens that the best antidote to the "smog" is to eat more black fungus and pears. 

I had a few takeaways from seeing and experiencing Beijing pollution: 
  • Air quality is obviously something I should appreciate more. And I do now.
  • Factories are plowing through coal not just because of goods and products being produced for the Chinese. All those things we buy that are Made in China add to the demand. So, when we buy cheap sweaters or electronics or a thousand other items around our homes, the impact is real, even though it hasn't affected us on the day-to-day yet. Our consumption is to blame for this pollution as well. 
Nota Bene: