Beijing air "like an airport smokers’ lounge"

Beijing's air quality is so bad the EPA doesn't have a scale that goes up far enough to define it. [Edward Wong at the NYT]


    NYC:  19
    LOS ANGELES:  24
    PHOENIX:  42
    PARIS, FRANCE:  45
    BEIJING: 800

    I’d get the fuck out of France and Arizona too, frankly.

      1. I wonder how Mexico City’s numbers stack up now.  When I was there years ago I was impressed by how relatively clean the air seemed vs all the horror stories I was told before going.

        1. There’s no direct way to know because we use our own scale called IMECA. The idea is to not have comparison with other cities. However, 2012 was a very clean year, with just a couple of special polluted days.

    1. Shenyang is worse than Beijing at the moment – Beijing is at 307 to Shenyang’s 401 (min 200, max 654 PM 2.5). Even the worst city I could find, Xingtai in Hebei province, that seems to be comfortably in the ”lead” at 655, is only a bit worse right now at 438. I’m pretty healthy and like cycling, but I’ve started taking an electric moped or taxi the 15 mins to work as otherwise it takes me about half an hour to recover (this is even when wearing a mask). It’s worst in the winter – there’s coal dust everywhere, which you notice more when there’s snow – it doesn’t stay white for very long before you start getting a coating everywhere, I think China in general and Shenyang in particular are fascinating places to live. I have a good job and great friends here, but I’m going to have to leave at some point soon as the pollution is killing me.

      1. I cycle to work in Melbourne and I turned down a job in Beijing for this exact reason. The experience would be good but I didn’t want to take years off my life and my son’s life.

        1. We’ve been fostering a four year old boy for the last few years and hope to complete the adoption process in the next couple of months, so I need to stay here for the time being. So far every year he has had multiple asthma attacks, bronchitis and pneumonia (EVERY year). My wife has actually just been to the doctors with him today, where they reassured her that this time it’s “only” bronchitis.

    2. Where are those numbers from? From what I can tell, different countries measure different things and have different scales; The Air Pollution Index used in China doesn’t map directly to the US’ Air Quality Index.

      1. The US placed an air quality monitor on top of its embassy–thinking that Americans visiting, working and living in the city might want to have a uncensored data point. It’s calibrated to US standards, naturally.

        The Chinese, used to having environmental monitors lie and distort the data, were offended

        1. I see. Rob’s numbers for the U.S. cities are on the low side though; today’s highs were NYC 45, Pittsburgh 40, LA 55-60 (they break it down with a lot of granularity there,) and Phoenix 90. Right now it’s getting towards midnight and Phoenix is just below 50. Still not a patch on 800, but a slightly less vast gap.

          1. 800 is also a record high for Beijing, and the rest of the week was more like half of that or even lower. So like, hardly even five or ten times as high as LA.

        2. That is an amazing document. Just shows the extent that the Chinese Government lies to its people and how it strong arms foreign governments…
          Remind me again why Harper thinks selling Canada to the Chinese is a good idea.

        3. Thank you for linking to the cable. It’s the first time I’ve read something from it that was connected to a news article I was already reading. Fascinating (and eye-opening).

    3. London still falls short of what is required by EU air quality legislation. In some locations new flats now have to have windows which cannot open to be fully compliant with building regulations. This being England they put in large plate glass windows and no air-conditioning. I know, I lived in one temporarily.

      1.  I was thinking that a 19 for London was rather low, but if the reading is taken from the US embassy (Right beside both Hyde park and Grosvenor square gardens), then it’s hardly representative of the city as a whole.

        1. I wonder how the great smogs of London in the fifties would rate on the modern air quality figures. Yellow fog so thick that people could not see their own feet, and several thousand deaths a day.

  2. I had a colleague who went to one of China’s industrial cities (not Beijing) for work and was outside without protection for 15 minutes. He was hacking up nasty shit for the next two weeks or so.

    On the plus(?) side, the Beijing air is mostly smog and coal pollution, while in a purely industrial city god knows what poisonous/radioactive crap you’re breathing.

      1. Don’t forget selenium and arsenic! Not to mention coal being the biggest human-created contributor to background radiation!

        1. Seriously fuck coal, my ancestors were coal miners and if they didn’t die from a cave-in it was probably from alcohol poisoning from living a crappy life.

    1. I went to Beijing with a colleague, we both stayed about a week.  On day three it rained overnight, and the difference when I woke up was amazing — the yellow haze was gone, and it finally looked like proper sunshine.

      We were both coughing a week after returning.

      15 minutes though? That’s awful.

  3. And Beijing used to be a great city for cycling.

    (Also OT: Disqus displays “Please wait…” for about ten minutes before I am able to post now. Just so you know)

  4. A friend of mine was in Beijing recently and was talking about how bad the air is. Even the shiny new terminal at the airport can’t keep the smog out–she was saying that you could only see about halfway down the building before everything vanishes into the haze.

    1. It’s not really the “seeing” it part that’s terrible.  It’s more visceral.  It’s going to bed wheezing in your hotel, feeling like something is wrong, …can’t quite tell what.  Then when I got back to the USA, I realized that I felt like I inhaled shredded insulation for two weeks while I was in China.  It really did take me about a month to recover, and I got pneumonia, too, from just being that messed up.  But, man, what a trip.  It was a great trip.

    2. In July 2011, we took our adopted daughter to see her native China. When we got into the airport terminal in Beijing it wasn’t too crowded, probably because it was the middle of night, since our flight was four hours late coming in, but the first long corridor we went down was actually smokey, for reasons nobody ever explained.

      It was like that in 2003 as well. We bought a souvenir book from Hefei, and something looked odd about the panoramic photo of the city. When I looked next to the buildings, I could see that they had edited a nice blue sky in, but bits of the grey-brown smoggy original were still visible right by the walls. My photos of Hefei show the sun as a red disk trapped in the haze.

      They love fireworks, too. So do I, but they don’t seem to wait for much of an occasion to set them off.

  5. True strory: I lived in Beijing for ten months before I found out that there was a mountain range north of the city. I was only able to see them for a day after a hurricane had hit the mainland and blew the smog away. They were so close! And so beautiful! And only visible for a day, alas.

    1. We had exactly the same experience. We had what would have been an awesome view of the mountains from our apartment… Saw them once in the whole year.
      We were there during another peak in pollution. The world media was reporting record levels of PM10s and 2.5s for Beijing, Nothing on the local news whatsoever. I had such awful sinusitis from it that I was actually sneezing up green and bloody chunks as big as the ends of my fingers for weeks after. And yes, it was gross. But the the relief… :-)

  6. A friend of mine who works in the windmill power business here in the US said that North America could shut down all coal-fires power stations tomorrow and it would have little effect on the air quality: so much smoke is blowing over from China, that it doesn’t matter.  That’s probably hyperbole that he uses to sell clean energy, but there’s probably a little truth in it, too (hence, my sworn duty to post it here on the intarwebs and add to the legitimacy).

  7. We were there in April.  Our guide told us the number one cause of death in Beijing is cancer, and it’s because of the air.  It’s like a fine grit that pervades everything.  You can even feel it when you chew.  We also visited Xi’an and Shanghai, which both had visible pollution, but nothing like Beijing.

    It’s similar to being downwind of a forest fire.

  8. And isn’t it great that we here in the US are gearing up to ship even more coal over to China.  Yikes. 

    1. Selling coal like this is more than a little bit like selling tobacco… it’s addictive (insofar as the prosperity it enables is addictive) and liable to degrade air quality and cause lung cancer.  Perhaps we need to add a Surgeon General’s Warning to every shipping container we send over?

    2. And we’re gearing up to extract the oil in the Canadian tar sands too. 
      As long as the 1% can live in seemingly pristine places, they don’t give a fuck. Profits before the hoi polloi!

  9. Every tiny little kitchen and fireplace in Beijing burns bricks of coal all day long in the winter… if it snows at night, the snow is covered in black dust by 10a.m.  But at least the streets are clean and well-swept.

  10. I wonder how this compares to the Great London Smog of 1952 that killed thousands of people. Perhaps the Chinese are better prepared for the smog with masks and air purifiers, but I wonder if the intensity is similar.

    1. This was my city in England (Stoke-on-Trent), probably a bit over 100 years ago. Shenyang has the same kind of tall coal stacks which are used to heat apartment buildings, but the industry has largely been moved out of the city. This is one thing that the government can do in China, if there’s enough will to change something it can happen very quickly. Although the picture here could have been altered to make the situation look worse, you don’t see anything this bad in Shenyang. I can’t find any statistics online about the pollution levels in Stoke before the clean air act in the 1950s, but there was a strong focus on Stoke-on-Trent at the time and the whole area is still considered a smoke control area under the act (making it an offence to emit smoke from a chimney of a building, a furnace or any fixed boiler in the whole city).

        1. Turns out I have *really* bad taste when it comes to finding places to live. You never know though, Tolkien spent a lot of time in the Black Country just south of Birmingham, and would have seen the smoke of the big cities in the distance. At least one site has seen a connection and commented that seeing clouds of smoke with flashes of red in the distance would have had quite a strong influence on him as a child. The article also comments on the influence of West Midland English dialect on some characters such as Smeagol, which is… nice, I guess. Tolkein’s son ended up as the priest in charge of the church next to our hose in Stoke. Incidentally, the name ‘Black Country’ had no racial connotations, the whole area was just really black from the smoke and soot.

          People had a sort of perverse pride in the smoke, as it symbolized the industrial strength of the region. Bad habits now seen as typically Chinese, such as coughing up phlegm and spitting it on the street were also pretty common, for obvious reasons.

  11. I was there in the summer, and the air wasn’t this bad, but the pollution would stick to the sweat on my skin and make me break out in a rash.

  12. America and England both went through periods of high pollution on their way to becoming industrial powers, but it seems like we don’t want to allow anyone else to do the same. I am not in the least in favor of China’s pollution or anybody else’s, but I see a great hypocrisy in this. Not unlike our horror at watching Brazil cut down the Amazon rainforests after having destroyed the prairies of America and polluted the Great Lakes ourselves. Can you imagine if we had managed the self-sustaining herds of buffalo, how many people could have been fed with little damage to the environment? But as I read the history, we exterminated that incredible resource for cheap fur and to kill off Native Americans.

    1. Maybe it isn’t hypocrisy, but instead hoping they would benefit from our experience. There’s no reason why you must go through a pollution phase while undergoing industrialization.

      1. The issue I am trying to point out is not just pollution. The U.S. seems to want to lead the world into an era of peace at the point of a gun, when it is hard to find as much as a twenty year stretch of peacetime in our entire history. And when it comes to the U.S. benefitting from the experience of other countries that have make tremendous progress in, say, reducing gun deaths by restricting guns or reducing drug addiction by legalizing drugs, fuggedaboutit! We suggest others learn from our experience, but we never return the favor.

    2. America and England both went through periods of high pollution on their way to becoming industrial powers

      And China’s population is ten times what ours was at the time.

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