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China’s Air Pollution Is A Daily Catastrophe

I got out of bed this morning after a sleepless night of coughing, wheezing, and going through the rounds of some kind of head cold/ respiratory infection nightmare. China’s air pollution is taking another hit at me. This is an ongoing affair for just about anybody who lives in this country. Among other hazardous chemicals [...]

I got out of bed this morning after a sleepless night of coughing, wheezing, and going through the rounds of some kind of head cold/ respiratory infection nightmare. China’s air pollution is taking another hit at me. This is an ongoing affair for just about anybody who lives in this country.

Among other hazardous chemicals and types of particulate matter, the smog in China is made up of incredible amounts of PM 2.5. This is particulate matter that is small enough to enter into the air sacs of your lungs and, sometimes, into your bloodstream. Because of its ability to invade a body, this type of particulate matter can transport all types of bacteria, viruses, and sicknesses with it. Not only does exposure to it carry the long term risk of cancer and other respiratory disease, but also the short term risk of illnesses like colds, infections, and various types of flu. So not only is the air in China chock full of industrial chemicals and particulate matter, but germs as well. And due to the high level of air pollution in this country, airborne illnesses are provided with a superhighway into the respiratory systems of 1.3 billion hosts, which can potentially be spread like few other places in the world.

Hacking and wheezing and coughing is part of the public soundtrack of China, as we all chew on this air day after day.

“It’s suppose to be a sunny day today,” my wife said as we sat down to breakfast.

I cringed. Of course, I have nothing against sunny days, but this statement meant that the gloomy and dark sky out my window was not caused by clouds or fog, but smog. It was another bad air day, a pea-souper — whatever you want to call it, there was a solid wall of atmosphere greeting me outside. Yet another bright and sunny day in Taizhou had been usurped by air pollution.

You can’t check the weather report in China independent from the smog report, as one can say that it’s a beautiful and sunny day while the other tells of pea-soup doom and gloom.

I got up from my seat and made for the nearest window. I could not even see the high-rises across the street, and the towers of the apartment complex that I live in were opaqued by air. I looked up at the sun and it was like a light bulb inside of thick lampshade, its rays merely amounting to a dim glow through the cover.

The view from my window

The view from my window

I walked into my room and grabbed my respirator, and checked the air quality index. It was in the high 200s. An hour before it was in the high 300s. For scale, according to the World Health Organization, anything over 20 is considered unhealthy, and it is extremely rare for any place in the United States to show a reading over 200. But 200+ readings are absolutely normal in China, where I am they occur one out of every three days.

In fact, though the air looked like a solid wall today everything will continue as normal. Men will go outside and smoke cigarettes, kids will play basketball, people will walk around, conduct business, and ignore the fact that their city looks like a smoking wok. Nobody will talk about the pollution, people will do what they do every day — because the air today is like it is pretty much every day. Air pollution in China is a daily catastrophe.

“Why am I still here?” I asked myself.

I have thoroughly violated one of the prime advantages of being a traveler, and that’s the fact that I can leave unhealthy or severely polluted places without a second thought. But when you add things like your wife’s work contract, your perpetual lack of money, and the fact that your daughter enjoys the school she’s going to, the decision to up and leave a place on a whim becomes much more involved.

I now have my PM 2.5 anti-pollution mask on as I type this. On days when the air quality index is over 200 I wear a mask outside, on days over 300 I even keep that mask on indoors. The degree of insanity that humans can become accustom to is simply remarkable. You do not get looked at like a nutcase for wearing a respirator when walking down the streets of China. In fact, an increasing number of people are wearing them as well. Soon enough, they will be a staple of Chinese urban street wear. Some companies are even rolling out PM 2.5 masks with bright colors, rhinestones, and other kitsch. Personally, I’m waiting for one to come out that has the teeth of a shark on it that I can juxtapose over my own jawline. In a country where smog induced fashion statements are being rolled out all societal sanity checks have perhaps been bypassed long ago.

This should have been a clear, sunny day

This should have been a clear, sunny day

The Chinese government says that it’s committed to fighting air pollution, but this pretty much just amounts to them telling people not to set off as many fireworks, to wear masks, and to try not to go outside when the air is crazy bad. Then they burn more and more coal every year, sit back, and watch the air in their country get worse and worse, and their people sicker and sicker.

China's rising coal use, almost as much as the rest of the world combined

China’s rising coal use, almost as much as the rest of the world combined

But it’s difficult to really complain about something when you make the conscious decision day after day to endure it. The people of China have no choice, they are the victims here. I’ve chosen my own punishment. I delude myself into believing that the air is going to get better, that I’m going to be able to regularly look out my window and see the buildings across the street, that the “airpocolypses” that I’ve experienced over this past year were isolated disasters, but I know that this is simply not true. This pollution will not only continue, it will get worse. I love just about everything about this country besides its polluted air, its poisonous water, and its contaminated food, but continually exposing myself to these high levels of health threats day after day are corroding my desire to remain here. Perhaps the only thing crazier than China’s air is my family’s continued resolve to breath it.

Modern China is a miracle. Its rise to power, its claims to wealth, and the fact that masses of people who were poor peasants a generation ago are now middle/ upper class is truly remarkable. The nouveau riche class of this country is a population in and of itself. Over the years that I’ve been in China I’ve witnessed a society in transition like nothing else in history, but I can’t help but have the impression that I’m watching a band playing on the deck of a sinking ship. China’s GDP growth can perhaps also be measured in coughs, wheezes, respiratory infections, and deaths.

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Filed under: China, Health, Pollution

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 83 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3212 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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