Saturday, December 29, 2007


I have been keeping my head under the duvet most of this week, deliberately avoiding reading the news - and particularly any news there might have been about the scarily horrible air quality we've been suffering in Beijing for the past few days. But Leah wouldn't leave me be - she yanked my ostrich-head out of the sand, and slapped this alarming little report (from the online version of That's Beijing magazine, via the essential China news anthology site, Danwei) in front of me.

I believe there's been quite a bit of debate about the measurement of the Air Pollution Index (API) in China. [A year or so ago, I was helping out a Shanghai-based journalist with some research for an article on concerns about air pollution in regard the annual Beijing Marathon; but I don't have all the links any more - go and look for yourself.] I think it's suggested that there are certain types of particulate pollution that they don't count at all here but which are counted in most other countries' API, as well as more general doubts about whether local measurements are sometimes deliberately doctored to make them seem slightly less horrendous.

Leaving such doubts about the comparability - or the honesty - of Chinese API figures aside, the received wisdom from environmental experts is that an API rating of 80-100 is where things start getting worrying. And Beijing tries very hard - by a variety of means, both fair and foul - to keep its numbers below this on a certain number of days of the year. Not very many days. Most of the time in this smoky, dusty city, it's there or thereabouts. Often quite a bit higher. Sometimes up above 150. Occasionally even sneaking above 200.

You lucky people back home really have no conception what this is like. Unless you live downtown in a big city, you've probably never encountered an API level above 100 in your life. Most residents of Europe and North America probably start getting all snuffly and hypochondriacal and complaining if they have to suffer a level much above 50.

100 is bad. 200 is seriously unpleasant. 300 is almost unheard of. It's a real danger threshold, a point at which there ought to be public health warnings urging people to stay indoors.

What was Beijing's API on Thursday, December 27th this year? 200? 250? 300??

No. 421.


That's a real Doomsday scenario - spectral horsemen in the sky, scaly beasts rising from the oceans, that kind of thing. "For heaven's sake, keep your children inside or they'll get cancer!"

Were there, in fact, any public health warnings issued on this most poisonous of days? No.

Everyone I know who went to work that day, got sick. I only went out for a few hours in the evening, and I got sick.

The skies are clear again today, thank god. But I fear that these last few days may have done long-term damage to my lungs. We are all taking years off our lives by living here, I know it.

Immediate Update:
Leah has a nice piece on her blog (having done some of the research I couldn't be bothered to!) about comparative API levels in the States and the composition of the pollution here in Beijing. Apparently, yesterday Beijing's API went off the scale (500+)! I'm a little sceptical about that, because it seemed to have cleared up a lot by mid-morning.... but early, when I took this picture, yes, it was pretty grim.


moonrat said...

j**** c*****.

thank you, god, for "clean" old new york...

Anonymous said...

i believe it was 500 on Friday.

I was sneezing quite a bit on Thursday (my nose - my internal API index), and was sneezing NON-stop on Friday AND even my Chinese Colleagues (who claim to not be effected by it - "pollution, what is pollution?") were sneezing all day.

Froog said...

It was better later in the day, in the evening, wasn't it, T?

The first few hours in the morning were atrocious - maybe you were just suffering all day long from your brief exposure on your way in to work.

I figure Thursday must have been worse over all because it was up above the 400 mark for 24 hours straight.

The State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) does now have an English-language section to its website, but it's mostly propaganda fluff: . I have heard that it does post "warnings" on extreme days - but what good is that, really? How many average Beijingers even have access to the Internet, much less the inclination to click on SEPA every day to see if it's safe to go out? Any such warnings on the English pages are impossible to find. There is a daily API listing for all major cities in the righthand sidebar (but it changes so quickly that it's hard to read, and you can't pause it, or click on the city that interests you). And if you search on, for example, 'Beijing + API', you get no returns. How helpful is that?!

But apparently Beijing was down to a "normal" 151 API again on Saturday. Woo-hoo!

I think these (alleged) oh-so-discreet notices on the SEPA website are probably about all that happens in the way of "official warnings". I gather there have been a few references to the awful air in the local Chinese-language media, but it's very mild stuff - framed in terms of 'advice' rather than 'warning'. The Beijing Evening News on Thursday, for example, 'advised' old people not to do their early morning callisthenics in the parks on Friday...... but, since there don't seem to have been any similar doses of such helpful 'advice' handed out on Wednesday evening or Thursday morning, Beijing's old folks were presumably all bed-ridden by Thursday evening after incautiously venturing out in that foul air during the day.

And I don't think there's been any mention at all of this situation in the local English-language media.

When the API gets up to 300 and higher, they certainly ought to be thinking about closing down workplaces for the day..... if not imposing a compulsory curfew.

Really. I mean, I hate any form of government compulsion, but.... on a huge public health issue like this, I think it's justified. People died this Thursday and Friday, I'm quite sure of it. And we've all fucked up our health significantly.... for who knows how long.

It does make me question whether I want to renew my visa....

argonox said...

I'm sorry to have been the bearer of such a harsh reality check-- I got a bit sick as well :( My lungs are still feeling a bit heavy and achey.

Froog said...

Sorry to hear that, L. Hope you're feeling better soon.

Xin nian kuaile!