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Forecast: Hazardous

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It has been a long while since I last posted. The highlight of this siesta has been a ‘holiday’ back home, which really and truly allowed me to appreciate all the comforts home (just the amazing place that London is, really) has to offer.

I’ve been back in Beijing for 3 weeks already now, and have become painfully aware of the not-so-long amount of time we have left here, which is until the end of June.

Anyway, enough complaining about my not having been proactive enough so far in China. The purpose of this post was really just to highlight an issue that has recently become even bigger: Pollution in Beijing. By this, I mean that it now comes up in conversation a minimum of once a day. Of course, this change has not come overnight: it was, is and has been an issue for the last six months I’ve been in China too, but in the last month or so, the pollution levels have gone from bad to dangerous, bringing it to the forefront of everyone’s attention.

According to the World Health Organisation, “average concentrations of the tiniest pollution particles – called PM2.5 – should be no more than 25 microgrammes per cubic metre” .
Levels of air pollution over 100 microgrammes are ‘unhealthy’, and 300 is considered hazardous. Official Beijing readings have reached levels over 400, and unofficial readings from the US embassy have recorded 800.

I didn’t really used to think about the effect this would/could be having on my health. But recently there have been a number of small happenings that have really brought it to my attention. One was a friend telling me that being outside for one hour was equal to smoking 8 packets of cigarettes. (I make no guarantees as to the reliability or authenticity of this ‘fact’).  The second is that in our newspaper reading class this term, two students per lesson are required to present a summary of and their opinion on any newspaper article of their choice and then pose a question or two to the class, which sometimes – depending on the topic of the article – results in a bit of a discussion. A large proportion of the presentations recently have revolved around the pollution levels in Beijing. The third is a sort of knock-on effect of my becoming more aware of this issue recently, and it is that when I look outside now, I actually see the pollution and smog, when before I used to pass it off in my mind as fog. After commenting on how the smog looked pretty bad outside this afternoon when we could hardly see the tops of the neighbouring buildings from our 17th floor flat, when I stepped out this evening, I was sure I could smell the bad air. It’s really not pleasant to feel like you can’t or shouldn’t yawn or take a deep breath when outside, and feeling guilty when you do.

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View from our window on an early January morning

So, wearing a mask, as many people do, sounds like a simple solution. But how effective are they really? The most commonly worn masks are just plain cotton, and of course, you’re still breathing the same air whether or not you wear it. We’ve heard of what are probably more effective masks, that have built-in filters, but are yet to find any.
Another solution would be to stay permanently indoors, but it’s possible that this is somewhat impractical, not to mention undesirable(!)

Suggestions have been made during class discussions for what actions could be taken, what measures could be implemented to counteract this increasing pollution. A classic: allow only certain cars, limited by number plates, to drive on the roads on alternate days. The problem raised with this was that people could buy two cars, and still be able to drive every day. Another point raised was that while the pollution may be an issue affecting China right now, it is not only China’s problem, but is in fact, a world problem. Someone suggested that if the population of European countries, for example, was as big as that of China, we would all be facing the same problem, and that the major reason for the higher pollution levels in China was simply because of the much larger population. The most controversial suggestion was that we should ‘tell China to slow down their levels of development’. I’m sorry, what? Excuse me, but who are we to tell anyone to develop slower, while we sit comfortably in the West? Who are we to deny people that are yet to buy themselves a car, a television, even a fridge! Just because China is still going through its ‘developing’ stage, and we in the West have already been through it, that does not at all give any of us the right to make such a demand, regardless even, of the fact that air quality may be one of the biggest contributors to quality of life. Let’s not forget – the Great Smog of London. Haven’t we been through  it too?

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About Ibtehaal

I graduated with a degree in Chinese and Economics, which involved spending a year studying Chinese in Beijing. This turned out to be the hardest but most rewarding thing I think I have ever done. I've now returned to China for another year, to study in Shanghai and figure out my next steps.

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