“Holding Our Breath”

Getting on Twitter today I was immediately struck by dozens of posts by Beijingers, who have endured astonishing levels of air pollution recently. Apparently it’s gotten so bad that the uncensored air quality feed provided by the American Embassy can no longer detect it- it’s off the charts. Absurdity, Allegory and China has a great post about this:

I have my curtains drawn and my office door shut and an IQAir filter cranking away. But that’s still not enough to keep the filth of Beijing air out. Periodically I look out the window, but then quickly draw the curtains again. I just don’t want to look at what is happening outside. It’s disgusting. This past Friday it snowed, perhaps the most depressing snow I’ve ever seen. I thought, “If there were enough of it, would you let your child play in that?” I remember those early life moments of scooping up a handful of snow, eating it, rolling in it, coming home frozen wet and red. That wouldn’t happen in this place. @bokane expressed it best: “Signs you’ve been in Beijing too long: you look out the window onto a snowy morning and just assume that it’s ash of some kind.”

On November 22 I went to the Terminal 3 of the Beijing Capital Airport to meet a friend who was to stay with us for a week. At 11:00 AM when she arrived the air was ‘Very Unhealthy.’ According to the air quality readings tweeted nearly every hour by the U.S. Embassy – much to the chagrin and protests of the Chinese government – the PM2.5 reading was 273. (PM2.5 is the invisible particulate matter that works its way into your lungs and does the most damage, a standard international measurement that the Chinese have, though they refuse to make their readings public. As we left the airport I told her that the smog would probably clear over the next few hours since the wind was predicted to rise. And rise it did, taking all the nastiness south that day. By 15:00 it was a ‘Good’ 39 and the wind was ripping.

The days between then and now have not been all that different: a few ‘Good’ and ‘Moderate’ periods, though mostly ‘Unhealthy’ and above. The exception has been the period we are in at the moment. As I write the PM 2.5 readings have been pegged in the ‘Hazardous’ zone since yesterday (Sunday) afternoon, 12-04-2011; 16:00; PM2.5; 406.0; 438; Hazardous, more than 19 hours ago. A few hours after the air quality entered the ‘Hazardous’ zone it reached the unmeasurable range (what some have unofficially deemed “Crazy Bad”) @ 12-04-2011; 19:00; PM2.5; 522.0; 500; Beyond Index , which is somewhat akin to WWI trench warfare air. How far ‘Beyond Index’ was it? There’s no way of knowing that, though if the CN.gov folks do, they aren’t about to tell anyone. In fact I’m surprised they haven’t sniped the measurement machine on top of the U.S. Embassy, yet. They hate it.

But this isn’t about us, China. This is about the Chinese. The majority of people who are affected by this insane level of pollution are your parents and grandparents. But it will all catch up to you later.

My city is bad enough, I can’t imagine living in Beijing.

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Filed under censorship, environment, pollution, public health

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