The air up there.
Those of you who were reading my blog back when I was in Beijing--that is, for the most part, those of you who are related to me--might remember that I used to complain quite a bit about the air quality. Or rather, the complete and total lack of anything approaching air quality. How bad was it? So bad that when I would go to Yahoo! to check out what the weather was going to be like, more times than I like to think about the forecast would be for SMOKE. That's right, not partly cloudy, cloudy, hazy, or even foggy: just plain old SMOKE. For those of you who are curious, the SMOKE graphic looks like this:
I guess I didn't find it that surprising, since even before I moved to the 'Jing I knew that the majority of the world's most polluted cities were in China (seven out of the top 10, as it turns out), that China--still!--used coal to meet a lot of its energy needs; and that most of the major waterways were so contaminated that they are basically toxic (70 percent of lakes and rivers are unsafe to drink from), but for some reason I never really thought about how bad it really was, or how bad it would be for me.
Or at least I didn't until the other day, when I read that a new study of satellite data by the European Space Agency found that Beijing has the worst air pollution in the world, including the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide, which apparently can cause "fatal damage" to the lungs. Yes, that's FATAL as in dead damage, not just your plain old normal damage. (I was going to say "harmless damage," but I'm not quite sure that makes sense.) Apparently 16 of the 20 cities in the world with the worst air pollution are, in fact, in China. I couldn't find the list, but I'm pretty sure Shanghai is in there somewhere, and probably somewhere fairly high. Although probably not quite as high as Hong Kong, as anyone who looked at this picture from my Hong Kong phog could probably guess.
(Side note: I bet all the track and field people looking forward to competing in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics were thrilled to read this story. Nothing like trying to run a marathon when the both the temperature and the humidity are in the nineties and your lungs are filled with particulate matter. Try simulating that in your training ...)
The same study also said that air pollution has gotten 50% worse in the last ten years, and apparently it could quadruple in the next fifteen years if nothing is done about it. (Given the way things go here, I should probably say "when nothing is done.") I'm not saying there's a connection, but Beijing currently has about 2.5 million cars, and they're currently adding about 350,000 per year with no sign of anyone doing anything to slow down the growth rate. That's one way to, um, fix the problem ...
I think the scariest part of all of this is that China is actually acknowledging the problem. The problem, in this case--according to a Chinese study--being that around 400,000 people (so, for example, the entire City of Oakland) died prematurely in 2003 from the terrible air pollution (this is the part where I refrain from any "but who cares about Oakland?" type of jokes), and that a million people--including me, I presume--live in cities where the air is "very dangerous." Why is it scary that China is talking about this? Because, as far as I know, they still refuse to tell the general public that there's been at least eleven bird flu outbreaks in the country in just the past month, possibly because potentially devastating world-wide pandemics aren't really worth discussing, but I'm not completely sure. (In fact, as of a few weeks ago, I don't think they'd even mentioned that bird flu had started up again here in the Chinese news, although that might have changed recently. It's hard for me to tell, what with not reading Chinese and all.)
When I was in Beijing I was told that the US State Department people stationed in the 'Jing got a "hazard pay" bonus for living there, which is something you get when you are sent somewhere that might be extremely detrimental to your health. You know, places where you are likely to be kidnapped, shot, or blown up, places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and, really, any of the other assorted 'Stans, probably. Certainly terrorism isn't a big threat in Beijing, so why the hazard pay? Simple: because it's just that polluted. I used to laugh about that, but I guess maybe I shouldn't anymore? I'll probably be too busy coughing to do it anyway ...