On Friday morning I was taking a group of foreign guests to visit sites around Nanjing when a heavy smog blanketed the city in a yellow stench. It seemed as if every family in the city of over 7 million had lit a pile of tires ablaze. Within 20 minutes of being outside I started feeling asthma like symptoms, meaning that it actually hurt to breathe.
After the experience I was eager to check the official Air Quality Index (updated daily) to see just how severe the pollution had been. Unfortunately, these are not posted in a timely enough manner to be of any use in avoiding this kind of hazard.
So you can imagine my surprise in learning that “officially” the air quality on Friday was “good” according to the Chinese scale (it was 90 on the AQI scale while a neighboring city was over 300, on this scale anything over 35 is considered to have negative health effects). Not only was the air not good, but 90 is actually an average day for Nanjing, nothing at all like what we experienced here on Friday.
Which makes me question a recent study done by MIT that used gov’t numbers to conclude that air pollution cost China about $112 billion in 2005 (Full Report -or- summary). It is important to note that this report was complied only looking at PM10, which are the larger particles in the air, the PM2.5 measurements are not collected by the Chinese gov’t, and are the smaller particulates that cause the most damage to the respiratory tract. Given though that the air is much worse than what is being reported it is safe to say that this number should be much, much higher, and that is only counting air pollution.
Beyond the economic costs, and the physical damage being done to the Chinese people, I think it is important to note that China’s current environment is embarrassing. Even as an expat, I felt more than a little embarrassed of my adopted country, when our foreign guests pointed out that after his experience, he would never bring his family to China. This guest was a medical doctor from the UK, and wasn’t the type to make jokes. “My son has mild asthma,” he said, “This pollution would kill him.”
For more on this topic read Jonathon Watt’s report card for China’s Environment or My first post on the topic, “There Must Be Something in the Air“
Update: Yesterday we again saw severe pollution, which was reported on the news as reaching an AQI index of 361, and yet it was not nearly as bad as Friday’s pollution. This level of pollution is considered to cause health problems in even the healthiest people, and all outdoor activities should be cancelled. Yet no warning was issued by the local health departments.