Masks and smog apps in polluted China

Sat, Feb 2, 2013, 00:00

In foul-smelling Beijing, pollution is obvious inside buildings, and the smog is deemed more dangerous than Sars

Here in China’s cleanest province, Hainan island, in the far south, the air is warm and you can smell the sweet green foliage. Visibility is excellent: you can see the new hotels being built on the beachfront, workers with wide straw hats and blue overalls toiling on the upper reaches.

Sanya, on the south of the island, consistently comes in below 20 on readings of PM2.5 particles, the tiny pollutants that can go deep into the lungs and cause lung cancer, bronchitis and asthma. The World Health Organisation recommends 20 as a healthy level.

Groups of middle-aged men in shorts are packing golf clubs into the backs of their cars in Haikou, the provincial capital. It’s a lovely day for a round of golf. Life is good in Hainan.

But in the north of the country, in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, the average reading over the past 30 days has been 393. It’s the Chinese city with the worst pollution reading over the past month. For nearly a week at the end of January, the grim reading in Shijiazhuang was at 500, which is as high as readings go.

The index read “severely polluted” for two weeks. When the air is that polluted, your eyes sting, you can’t see clearly and you start to worry about your lungs.

Very little golf is played in northern and central China right now.

The World Bank believes 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China, and most of them are in the north. Guangzhou, one of the biggest cities in China and the capital of the industrial behemoth of Guangdong province, has had a “good” reading for the past month, occasionally reaching “excellent”.

But in the national capital, Beijing, this week, the pollution is visible in the hall of our apartment building, and the air tastes foul, like a noxious mixture of oil and gas.

Outside on Jianguo Avenue, the huge thoroughfare that traverses central Beijing and is now permanently full of cars, you can’t see the skyscrapers across the street.

Pneumonia on the rise

Zhong Nanshan, a scientist from the Chinese Academy of Engineering who made his name helping to identify and then halt the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), believes the smog is more harmful than the outbreak in 2003, which killed 349 people on the mainland.

“The number of pneumonia cases in Beijing has increased by 60 per cent in the past 10 years. That’s astonishing,” he says in an interview with the Chinese state broadcaster, CCTV. He urges people, especially anyone working outdoors, to take preventative measures such as wearing masks.

Our family wears white masks from Japan, and inside our apartment we use Swedish air purifiers, which are sold by Chris Buckley, the owner of the Beijing-based Torana Clean Air Centre. He used to work as a safety officer at Procter & Gamble, where he first came across air-purification methods. He then went into making and selling beautiful Tibetan carpets, but since he developed mild asthma in Beijing he has kept focused on air purifiers and face masks.

We have bought a machine for every room in the house, and keep them cranked up to 11, like a Spinal Tap amplifier.

Layer upon layer of pollution, from coal-fuelled power-plant emissions and car-exhaust fumes, among other sources, are combining to create the mess. Coal-fired power stations account for more than 70 per cent of China’s energy production, while nearly 20 million cars were sold here last year, making China the world leader in car sales.

Many of the cars coming on to the streets should have low emissions, as they are new, but the sulphur content of vehicle fuel is very high. In Beijing, personal and public vehicles contribute the largest proportion of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants to the atmosphere.

People consult the China Air Quality app on their smartphones, getting the latest hourly update before deciding whether to go out. The US embassy reading is generally deemed the most reliable. The official data has become more dependable, but still often seems to understate readings.

Since the government has started being more open about pollution readings, and stopped calling smog “fog”, local people have become a lot more concerned. Many of them cannot afford air purifiers, filters or masks.

Beijing-based Sun Zhihui, who sells Alen air purifiers for a Shanghai company called Youla, used to have much better sales in Hong Kong. “Now we sell much more in Beijing and Shanghai,” he says. “Since the very polluted air this January I’ve been crazy busy. Many customers who never bought before are buying, and I only sleep a few hours every day. Sales are 10 times what they were in the summer,” says Sun.

“We don’t have any machines left; new machines can be made and shipped [at the] earliest in April. We’ve asked for more from the US, but it takes several months. It’s not like tofu you can make overnight.”

Heavily polluting industry was moved outside the city, but only as far as the foot of surrounding hills, where it does not disperse easily, and often blows back in. Air pollution alone is estimated to kill 700,000 people a year in China.

Ma Jun, a Beijing-based environmentalist and the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, told the Global Times that there are things the government can do immediately to ease smog. “Dust from construction sites can be decreased if the government puts more efforts into supervision, and factory emissions should be improved,” says Ma.

Unofficial filters

On the street in the Sanlitun shopping district, a man with a big box of masks is doing a brisk trade. These appear to be surgical masks, which do not filter the air very effectively and are more commonly used by people at this time of year to stop spreading colds and flu.

Given that the official suppliers are all running out, it’s very unlikely these are the real thing.

Minxin Pei, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in California, writes in Fortune magazine that the current pollution issue is “beyond shocking”. He believes it could have broader political ramifications if something is not done.

“For the Chinese government, this was merely one of many wake-up calls. The question on everyone’s mind is whether Beijing will finally muster the political will to implement policies to avert an ecological calamity that will almost certainly spell the end of the Chinese economic miracle and potentially lead to the fall of the Communist Party itself,” says Pei.

“The Chinese middle class, which is particularly conscious of quality-of-life issues, could very well become a powerful source of opposition to the party if it concludes that the one-party state is responsible for their daily miseries: poisonous air, toxic water, and unsafe food.”

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