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Air Pollution Haze Covers Central China

smog-burning-straw

TAIZHOU, China- As the weather continues to warm up a thick blanket of fog has engulfed many cities in the Eastern portion of Central China. The gray-yellow miasma began moving in over Jiangsu, Hunan, Hubei, and Anhui provinces around a week ago, and it is sometimes so thick that it is not possible to see the the tops of buildings from the ground or between building if looking out from a window. As I stand on the seventh floor of an apartment high-rise I cannot see the skyscrapers and other tower blocks that rise less than a kilometer away — and today is a good day. Sometimes the visibility is next to nothing, the view is so opaque that I cannot see the buildings across the street. At first, this cloud was called fog, but the cover has been so thick and persistent that it has become clear that we are not just experiencing a high accumulation of water vapor in the air:

It is pollution.

During the nights here in Taizhou (in Jiangsu province) I’ve also began noticing a burnt smell in the air to accompany the poor visibility during the day. At first, I ignored it, thinking that the phenomenon was the normal marine layer of fog that accompanies coastal regions combined with someone was burning a little garbage in the street nearby. But when the scent continued and the fog did not lift for several days it became obvious that there was something going on, and I began looking for other possibilities.

Haze in Nanjing

Other people have noticed this perma-haze as being abnormal as well. All around eastern and central China reports of the miasma have been surfacing. Hubei province reported their worst foggy weather in a decade. Jiangsu province was assaulted with a severe air pollution increase and announced a yellow level warning over the weekend. The city of Wuhan was encapsulated in a smog cloud so thick that it was not possible to see for greater than a couple dozen meters. Five major highways were closed down for a half hour in Anhui province as the visibility dropped to 20 meters. The city of Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, recorded air pollution levels which were near their worst marks in history. On Sunday, the air pollution index in Nanjing jumped to 478, making it the most polluted city in the country which uses this calculation system. In point, this thick, persistent fog is not normal.

Catastrophe or business as usual? The official take on the foggy miasma

I’ve put in a lot of time traveling/ living in China, I don’t freak out or complain about the poor air quality — it’s just a part of life here — but when my city begins to take on the scent of a smoking piece of bread stuck in a toaster, I begin asking questions. I’m not alone. According to an NPR correspondent, the French embassy in Wuhan claimed on their Twitter account that the yellow-gray cloud that descended on their city was the result of a nearby chemical plant explosion. The French embassy has since removed the Tweet, did an about face, and has reverted to the official take on the situation.

The Chinese government says that the gray-yellow clouds which have covered a large portion of the country is the result of  a combination of weather conditions, such as rain and humidity, combined with farmers burning wheat straw. Reputedly, the smoke from the burning straw mixed in the air with normal foggy conditions to produce a major environmental hazard.

Tian Yiping, a senior researcher with the provincial environmental monitoring center said inhalable particles rose sharply from 2 a.m. Monday, but concentrations of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide remained normal. . . This proves that the pollution stemmed from the burning of organic matter, not industrial accidents. -Straw burning shrouds central China provinces

I’ve been traveling around Jiangsu province regularly over the past few weeks, and I can attest to the fact that large amounts of straw are being burned in the countryside. It is technically illegal for farmers to burn their excess straw, but they do it anyway as there is no money in recycling it, it needs to be cleared out of the fields before new crops can be planted, and burning it acts as a natural fertilizer. Slash and burn agriculture is common throughout the world, but when this is done on the scale of China — which is to say, to extremes — it can become severely problematic. Reputedly, smoke from these straw fires has been able to completely blanket an area from the coast past Changsha — a distance of over 1500 km.

I must remain partially skeptical, though I cannot bring any facts to the table to back up this position. The farmers burn straw every year but this massive smog cloud that covers a large part of the country is something unusual. “I’m from the countryside and we always burn straw,” a friend told me. “We have fog there and it smells clean and fresh, and we have smoke and it smells like smoke,” she continued, “but here in the cities we have fog and it smells like smoke.”

Haze over burnt straw field and power plant

But I do know that one of the more onerous aspects of living in China is that you never really know what is going on, and the Chinese people feel this frustration as much as the foreigners. The national government completely controls the national media, and they are often not very forthcoming on letting the common people in on what’s happening in their country — especially when it could result in mass hysteria. In China, there is reality and then there is “official reality.” It has often been said that nobody should believe anything in China until it’s been officially denied. The true facts of what is happening in this country are often very difficult to sift out of the chaff.

Though one thing is for sure: the Chinese government does warn its people “to stay indoors or wear masks outdoors.” This sounds pretty ominous to me.

Air pollution in Wuhan, Hubei province

The air quality of many Chinese cities ranks as some of the worst on the planet. I remember the black boogers that would gather in my nose just from taking a walk around Hangzhou in Zhejiang province as well as that unfortunate day when I climbed a tree to get frisbee and came down looking like a soot covered chimney sweeper. Any increase to the average pollution levels in Chinese cities can easily push them to the brink of catastrophe. Taken as is, the mass atmospheric accumulation of organic matter resulting from the burning of straw being suspended in the air by fog takes the air pollution cocktail here to the extreme.

Haze in Nanjing

The reported health effects of breathing in the gray-yellow miasma is akin to repeatedly smoking several packs of cigarettes. It was claimed that being outside and breathing the air for 24 hours in Nanjing over the past weekend would have been the equivalent of smoking 340 cigarettes. I spent the past two days in Nanjing — when the air pollution levels were off the charts — and my throat is sore and I have a minor headache, but, ultimately, I feel alright. Though there are reports of the public getting jumpy in other cities, I have not observed this. The air is still thick with the unnatural fog, but the people take care of business as usual.

I’ve been through slash and burn season in various countries many times before, and I know that the skies sometimes get foggy and your throat gets sore for a few days, but you live. If the official reports are correct then this thick gray-yellow cloud should disperse when the farmers finish burning their excess straw. What I worry about is if this take is not representative of reality.

Sources

Filed under: China, Environment

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  • Mercury

    Not to be an alarmist, but you do know that air pollution is not only linked to respiratory diseases but also neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s? I would buy a respirator for everyone in your family. Young children are especially vulnerable.

    • Wade Shepard

      Thanks Mercury,

      Yes, I know this. But air pollution is everywhere. Outside of this incident the air quality is not excessively bad were we are based, and if this current smog blanket is caused from the burning of straw I’m not too worried about it. It’s a short term exposure scenario, a week or so it should be gone. Respirators would be good.

      • Mercury

        Yeah if it just straw no big deal. It’s the exploding chemical plant theory that would scare me a little. Good luck.

        • Wade Shepard

          For sure. I was a little worried for a few days, but I don’t think that even China could keep such a huge environmental catastrophe under wraps for so long. Many people here are a little skeptical that the smog was really from straw fires — as the farmers have been burning straw for as long as anyone can remember and this never happened before — but it’s my impression that if it was from something more ominous that the international media would have swooped in on it or by now (they are all over things like this) or the word would have been spread through the country via word of mouth. So far there only seems to be a few rumors but nothing to truly substantiate anything.

  • http://www.joyridefamily.com Jack

    Just a question: Are you sure those cooling towers are from a nuclear power plant? I always associated those with nuclear power but the truth is that I know of at least three locations with those kind of towers that are not nuclear power plants. In fact, it turns out they are dry cooling towers….basically a way to cool power plants without using a lot of water. Seeing the adjacent smokestack that is taller than the cooling towers, it appears as though those in the picture are the common dry cooling towers.

    Oh and about the smog, clear skies out here in Xinjiang. :) If you need to want to make a trip out here, now is the time.

    • Wade Shepard

      Not sure, changed it to just say power plant. Those clear skies of Xinjiang sound pretty nice.

      • http://www.joyridefamily.com Jack

        Well, hopefully you can make it out here. The trip we planned through China during summer is now busted. It looks like we are here all summer since my wife found out she is pregnant. Not so good of an idea to go out vagabonding during the 1st trimester. :) At least in January, we can give insight on having a baby in China.

        • Wade Shepard

          So I guess this means that we’re going to have to escape from this polluted fog and make it out to see you then! This is going to be your 4th kid, right? Seriously, we all think that we’re bad for traveling with one kid, you have an entire clan! Will email soon.

          Today I can see actual clouds for the first time in a couple of weeks and the air doesn’t smell like burnt toast — so I think we’re getting to the end of this.