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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 [...]

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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:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

14 comments… add one

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  • Just a reader February 24, 2013, 4:16 am

    Just doused my last cigarette under a stream of water from my sink, so as not to smoke it later. Scary post (Thanks.) What we do for money or what we should not do for money. Your post made me sad looking at you wearing a mask. I hope you can leave soon. Been living on the outskirts of Lima, Peru for over 2 years and when I venture to the center of Lima I can understand the pain, but nothing compared to what you are living in. Something about clean air, water and food just seems like a right we should all have on planet earth. I buy organic (bullshit) food and bottled mineral water. Does the future hold bottled air and then organic bottled air? In this instance I am thinking WALK FAST.

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    • Vagabond Journey February 24, 2013, 5:42 am

      For sure, we’re really starting to see the effects of the road we’re collectively heading down. It’s no longer just people yelling warnings of potential disaster, you can really come to China and see it for yourself. This is what the post-post-industrial world looks like. Truly frightening. 
      It’s funny that there is even a special designation for organic food, as a few decades ago it was just called “food.” 
      I just have to remind myself that I usually live in relatively clean places with good air and not as contaminated food, so this last China jaunt has really been a change of situation. Going to have to work hard these next months and finish up my work here, as I don’t know when I’ll be back. We’re going to the middle of some jungle after this 🙂

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      • Just a reader February 24, 2013, 10:22 am

        @Vagabond Journey Yeah, the whole organic scam is pretty interesting. Now in Lima I will splurge on organic eggs, tomatoes and lettuce. The eggs you can definitely taste a difference and the yolk is different color, compared to the normal tienda eggs. The price of the organic eggs is double. But back in the days it was just wholesome food, like your stated.
        You really opened my eyes on the pollution in China and I think why would I want to visit.
        But anyways at least you are saving money on cigarettes (bad joke.)

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        • Vagabond Journey February 24, 2013, 7:25 pm

          For real, you can get all the smoke you need just from breathing. Sometimes the air is so bad that it’s the equivalent of smoking something crazy like 20+ packs of cigarettes at 24 hour exposure. Insane. 
          One of the interesting things about being in China now is that you can see an industrial society that seems to be nearing the brink of a true environmental (and by extensions social) crisis. I can’t help but feel as though I’m witnessing some kind of history being made, a modern Atlantis story.

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  • Jack@GETPESOS February 24, 2013, 7:06 pm

    I think you are giving coal an undue bad rap. It’s not the coal that is the problem, it’s the inefficient use of energy in general, coal, petroleum, etc, it’s the lack of any real pollution controls, and it’s the lack of any real accountability. They can’t be changed in the short term. The real solution is a long term change but frankly I don’t think you’ll  be there for the long term. 🙂

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    • Vagabond Journey February 24, 2013, 7:55 pm

      @Musings of A Lost American Hey Jack, it is my understanding that there is a direct connection between burning coal and air pollution. There is even a direct correlation between the areas of China that burn the most coal and smog. I single out coal because it is the biggest source of energy here — excessively so. There’s other sources of pollution, but when the country runs on 75% coal power, that’s pretty extreme, and much of the pollution that I’m seeing is a direct result of utilizing this energy source. Though I agree completely that the lack of pollution controls and the inefficient use of energy that’s also a major part of the problem.

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      • Bob L February 24, 2013, 10:10 pm

        @Vagabond Journey  @Musings of A Lost American
        I have to agree with the Lost American, Coal is not, in itself, an issue.   Modern coal plants are pretty good at clearing the air.   Your description of China’s pollution reminds me of the the US when I was very young, only with China’s usual over the top effort.    In the US, the pollution got so bad, that the population finally stood up and said ENOUGH.    I suspect China will do the same very soon.   And, likely China will go over the top in cleaning the environment.

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        • Vagabond Journey February 26, 2013, 4:33 am

          Yes, I believe China does have the power to clean up the mess they are making — much more readily than a country like the USA that is so hamstrung by contending interests — and there is definitely massive amounts of public outcry over pollution all across the board. The major media is even getting the OK to publish some of these stories on the degrading environment. It is interesting, we very well could be looking at a situation where the people say enough very soon. Air pollution has been a big rallying topic, as it’s something that everyone can see and no government official can cover it up. Hopefully, some stricter measures are taken soon — otherwise the country seems on the brink of a real catastrophe that’s far bigger than the ones we see just about everyday.

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        • Bob L February 26, 2013, 7:18 pm

          @Vagabond Journey 
          You said: “….much more readily than a country like the USA that is so hamstrung by contending interests”
          It sounds like you are trying to compare the US now, to China now.    It would be better to compare China now to the US during the 60’s.   That is when public uproar really had an effect.   China is in a position to make a major cleanup, just as the US did.   The more you improve anything, the harder each new incremental improvement is and the more costly.   We are at a point now, where the costs are very high for very small improvements.   Time and technology may change this.   China is at a point where the costs are relatively low for huge improvements.  China has the advantage that proven technology is already available and has been for some time.   I suspect that they will expand on current technology and come up with some seriously good new technology that the world will clamor for.   One can only hope.

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        • Vagabond Journey March 1, 2013, 2:32 am

          Excellent point here, very true!

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      • Musings of A Lost American February 24, 2013, 10:48 pm

        @Vagabond Journey There is a direct correlation between burning anything and pollution. It makes perfect sense that in areas with the highest energy usage you will find the highest levels of pollution. It just so happens that because China uses coal for more than 75% of its energy needs. Just remember that 75% includes a lot of uses, like coal burning, cooking, heating, electrical power production, and coal gasification.
        The truth is that coal can be clean, cleaner than many other fuels. The problem is that in China they use very inefficient burners and don’t pretreat the coal at all. They’ve done an unbelievable amount of research in the US on how to burn coal cleanly but in China they use none of it. They use a one size fits all approach that is not tailored at all to the type of coal utilized.
        If you burn wet wood in a fireplace…you produce a lot smoke and very little heat. Burn dry wood in a fireplace, you get better combustion and more heat, but if you burn dry wood in a new efficient wood stove, you’ll get great combustion, more heat and a lot less pollution. The same applies to coal. 
        And there isn’t just inefficiency, there is real waste. In my apartment in Xinjiang, our heat was provided by a community coal fired boiler. Temperatures in our apartment were over 80 most of the winter, no matter how cold it was outside. I had to open the windows. A more efficient way would be to heat apartments to a lower temperature and use electric heaters to heat to a higher desired temperature.

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  • john February 25, 2013, 3:17 pm

    1:56… LMAO… Wade Shepard… always keeping it real… the realest travel blogger out… no one comes close…the only one who shows both sides of the coin…. no joke..that’s why ill always be a fan…

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  • john March 11, 2013, 4:10 am

    I got a mask because of you!

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    • Vagabond Journey March 12, 2013, 9:32 am

      @john Good call! I can imagine a lot more places and situations they could come in handy as well. Making it a permanent part of my travel rig.

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