China's Smog Problem

6 years ago

I spent a week in the Chinese cities of Beijing and Xi’an recently, and in the entire seven days, I never saw the sun or sky.

That’s not because the sky was stormy or overcast. It’s because the air is so polluted that, more often than not, it’s cloaked in a thick grey haze that even obscures the tops of office buildings.

Image: Kevin Dooley via Flickr

I’m a grown woman with two grown kids. I swim, bicycle, and hike regularly, dance whenever I can, and walk about four miles every day between my commute to various meetings, the time I spend walking my dog, and errands I do on foot. In other words, I’m in good shape.

And still, the dirty air made me ill. After just three days in Beijing, my energy levels had dropped, my throat hurt, my nose started running, and my ears itched. I kept the windows closed in my hotel room to keep my indoor air as clean as possible. If I wanted to do a lot of walking, I tried to do so very early in the morning before heavy traffic started pouring into the city and overpowering it with exhaust.

If I felt like this after three days, I wondered how women with small children were coping. Because young kids are still developing, their lungs can be particularly susceptible to the sooty and noxious particles that make up smog. So while I was in Beijing, I conducted an unofficial “woman on the street” survey. Here’s what I found out.

I probably spoke to ten women. The Chinese people I encountered on my trip were unfailingly friendly, cheerful, and polite. They seemed delighted if I tried to have a conversation with them. Though I was generally approaching people I didn’t know, they couldn’t have been nicer. And surprisingly many people spoke English far better than my Chinese (well, I don’t speak Chinese, so that wasn’t too hard!).

Without exception, everyone I approached seemed to understand that air pollution poses a serious threat to themselves and their kids. Many women noted that when the air is particularly bad, they wear face masks when they’re outside, and keep their kids inside to be safe.  Several wistfully remembered how clean the air was in September 2008, when China hosted the Summer Olympics. Wanting to make a good international impression, the government severely restricted traffic and temporarily shut down belching coal plants and factories. “The air was so clean then,” said one woman, a tour guide near the ancient Drum Tower that was also featured in the Olympics. “It was much better.”

Over lunch one afternoon, a journalist who is the mother of a kindergarten-age little girl nodded forcefully when I asked her if she was worried about her child’s health. “My pediatrician advises that I get her out of the city at least one whole month a year,” she said. “My husband and I have a cottage a couple of hours northwest of here, in the hills. The air is cleaner there. We try to go as often as possible.”

When two delightful young professional women approached me in Tian’an Men Square, I took the opportunity to ask them how the air in Beijing compared to the air in southern China, where they live. They shook their heads and held their noses. “Bad here, bad there,” one answered.

In the offices of one of the country’s leading environmental institutes, I asked the assistant director (whose identity needs to be protected) why the air was so polluted.

“The central government decrees that companies should clean up their plants,” she says, “but the laws are weak and there’s no enforcement. Companies can do what they want without any legal consequences, and the people and the planet suffer.”

I couldn’t help but compare Beijing’s air to mine in Washington, D.C. I’ve lived in the nation’s capital for 34 years. While we’ve had plenty of “code orange” days, signifying unhealthy air, the smog has never been so bad it blocked out the sun. In other major American cities, the story is the same. According to, the air quality in Beijing is 16 times worse than in New York City.

As I wrote here, neither U.S. air nor water are still healthy enough in many parts of our country. Still, thanks to our Environmental Protection Agency and enforcement of laws like the U.S. Clean Air Act, our air is far better than in countries where heavy industry operates without adequate laws or regulations.

I know our government and many industry leaders are frantic about "keeping up with China" economically. But if "keeping up" means we'd have to weaken our environmental standards to equal China's, it would be like cutting off our nose to spite our face.

Not a good idea.

For more on my China trip, don't miss "China - Then and Now," a comparison between my 2011 trip and my very first visit to China, in 1983.



Diane MacEachern

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