Monday, December 7, 2015

"Red Alert" over smog in Beijing

The Chinese government has issued its first ever "red alert" over Beijing's air pollution. The entire population of Beijing, myself included, received text messages both yesterday and on Sunday warning about the upcoming pollution. The first message warned about severe pollution from Monday to Wednesday, and said that schools should suspend outdoor activities, and vehicles which transport earth from construction sites should suspend their operations.

The second message spoke about terrible pollution from Tuesday to Thursday at midday (when strong winds are predicted), and warned that cars will only be allowed on the roads on alternate days. It also suggested (the Chinese term used was 建议) that Middle and Primary schools suspend classes, and that enterprises consider "flexible working arrangements". My company is actually allowing everyone to work from home tomorrow.

The funny thing is that the pollution is nowhere near as bad as it was on Monday and Tuesday last week, when the PM 2.5 index reached 600, a level which hadn't been seen since the first "airpocalypse" in 2013. And yet because of the lack of an official government alert, people seemed to be less concerned than they are now, when the PM 2.5 still hasn't gone above 300. The difference is apparently that the heavy pollution has to be forecast to last over three days in a row for there to be a "red alert". Go figure.

If you don't live in China or another place with dreadful air pollution, you are probably unaware of the significance of the PM 2.5 index. In order to give you an idea, the WHO considers safe levels to be below 25. In no major European city does it usually go beyond 100 even on the worst of days. Once you get past a level of 150-200, the pollution becomes visible to the naked eye. Especially in the winter, this is a common occurrence in Beijing. Like most Beijingers, I can eyeball the PM 2.5 level based on how far I can see out of my window. If I can make out the high rises in the next neighbourhood, I know it can't be too bad.

The air quality may not be improving, but what has changed enormously since I first came to Beijing is the level of public awareness. Just a few years ago, most people here had no idea about PM 2.5 levels, and did not give the air quality too much thought, or even distinguish between smog and natural fog. Only very few wealthy people and foreigners possessed air purifiers, and almost no one wore a face mask.

Especially since 2013, awareness has increased exponentially. Air purifiers have appeared in many households of ordinary means, and those who can't afford the expensive ones buy cheaper and less reliable ones. Although you can still hear people say that it's better not to use a purifier at home in order to for your body to "get used to the pollution", such attitudes are on the decrease.

More and more people also wear masks on smoggy days, and not just the useless little surgical masks they used to wear, but the imported masks with a filter which you can buy in 7-11 (25 yuan for a packet of five). Recently, a small but increasing number of people are actually going around with a mask connected by a tube to a little oxygen tank strapped to their arm. Below is a photo a friend of mine took today on the Beijing subway. Underneath it is an advertisement for such a contraption.


The extraordinary measures that ensured clean air during last year's APEC summit and this year's military parade have shown the people that smog in China's capital is not actually unvanquishable. Now that they've understood that air pollution is bad for them, I wonder how long it will take for them to start considering such dreadful air quality to be unacceptable on principle, rather than an annoyance which you just have to bear.


justrecently said...

I'm unfamiliar with the levels, but could imagine that they were similar in European industry regions during the first half of last century. Many people also died from the side-effects of material they worked with, in all kinds of industries. Silicosis and lung cancer were frequent killers, too.

Much of what killed here in the past can now be found in China.

Ji Xiang said...

Yes, I think everyone knows that pollution was terrible in Europe in the past. The Chinese media won't stop remarking on that either.

On the other hand, technology has changed a lot since then, and it is probably easier to produce without polluting. There are certainly changes which could be done to reduce air pollution in China, without economic growth coming to a halt.