“The windows are messed up!” my daughter exclaimed upon waking up yesterday morning.
It was true: the windows were like the paper doors of an old Japanese house — opaque at best. You couldn’t see out of them, and only a mellow glow of morning light shown through. But it wasn’t the windows that were messed up, it was the air outside, the air that we breath.
China is in the middle of another “airpocalypse.” A thick, opaque fog has descended upon the streets and extends high up into the atmosphere. In some places visibility on the ground is so poor that highways have been closed, the government has ordered children to be kept indoors, and Beijing has issued its first ever orange level smog warning — meaning that viability is under 200 meters — while advising its residents to “take measures to protect their health.”
Hey, at least they acknowledged the catastrophe — I suppose that’s a step in the right direction.
For the past five days Beijing has been registering some of its worse air conditions in its recorded history. The Air Quality Index is a scale designed by the US Environmental Protection Agency that rates air pollution on a scale of 0 to 500. On Saturday, the air pollution reading in Beijing topped 886, completely “Beyond Index.” For reference, readings of 300 to 500 are considered hazardous to human health, and anything over 500 is considered to be over 20 times the level of particulate matter in the air deemed safe by the WorldOrganization. Throughout this smog storm, the readings in Beijing have regularly been hazardous and above. For the record, China does not officially recognize any readings over 500.
These measurements gauge the amount of PM2.5, which is particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in size, or 1/30th the width of the average human hair. These dust particles are small enough to be absorbed into the air sacs of the lungs and can transfer viruses and bacteria directly into the airway, causing various infections. Long term exposure can result in tumors.
China perhaps has the distinction of being the first place in the world to experience what amounts to smog storms. They cover not just one city or two, but vast parts of the country for days on end. This current smog storm stretches from Beijing down to Zhejiang province, from the coastal city of Tianjin west to Kunming, covering thousands of square miles.
This is the second smog storm that has happened since I returned to China last March. The first one was in June, and the smog cloud stretched from Shangdong in the north to south of Zhejiang, from the coast in the east all the way out passed Hunan to the west, blanketing thousands of miles and about a fifth of the country. The congealed pollution was so thick that I could hardly make out high-rises that rose only a couple of blocks away from me, and when out on the streets the tops of many tall buildings were obstructed from view.
Now the miasma is back, we’re in the middle of another airpocalypse. My daughter is hacking and coughing, and we are not even near the epicenter of this storm. I look out my window and everything beyond the foreground is blanked out by fog like a poorly photoshopped image. The sun is high in the sky, but it merely looks like a light bulb within a lampshade. This would otherwise have been a sunny day, there is not a cloud in the sky — only an overcast of smog, thick smog.
Though the air is choked with smog the message is perhaps clear that China’s method of development have been taken beyond an environmental breaking point, the world’s factory is quickly becoming uninhabitable. Whether this recent smog epidemic is a new type of environmental catastrophe or simply just what happens when low winds in China don’t blow the pollution away, I’m not sure. What I do know is that when smog clouds so thick that it’s difficult to see down the street engulfs thousands of square miles it’s an indication that something is going very wrong.
I once had a Chinese medicine professor in Hangzhou who would wear a full gas mask when walking around outside to avoid breathing polluted air. People used to think he was nuts. Not anymore.