When the Air Stinks – The Cost of Pollution in China

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.

20 responses to “When the Air Stinks – The Cost of Pollution in China”

  1. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

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  2. Joel says:

    Don’t even get me started on the pollution and it’s “questionable” monitoring/reporting. I try to do all my (legitimate!) crying and whining and coughing and hacking on my blog. I don’t want to turn people off to China, but it’d be a disservice to not mention the pollution to people considering moving here.

    I did compare weather reports one day in Tianjin, with tragically comical results: Beijing/Tianjin air polluton advisory warnings: Chinese vs. American

    The pollution is one major factor for why we are seriously considering leaving Tianjin. It’s just that bad.

    • Tom says:

      I am of the opinion that most of the things we hear in the States about China are not as bad as the media reports, except for the pollution, which is much worse than most American’s can imagine. IE a bad day in LA is a good day in Nanjing…
      Pollution is a chunk of why my wife and I aren’t even discussing having children in China.

    • Tim Corbin says:

      Qinhuangdao is the place to be, the air here is rarely BAD and usually the sky is actually blue (not the fake blue Beijing counts as blue). It helps to be right on the coast.
      Every time I’ve been to Tianjin (admittedly only twice) I’ve never seen the sun, I think it was there, but I couldn’t be sure…

  3. Look on the positive side. If you think pollution in China is bad, then I invite you to come live in Hong Kong. As an officially and de facto advanced territory with all the right environmental protection agencies, you’d be surprised that our quality of environment ranks right DOWN there with the mainland. People look askance at me with disbelief and doubt when I tell them that pollution in Hong Kong jumped from very low to PRC levels in just two years after the 1997 handover. In 1995, the view from my place towards Kowloon was clear enough, and it was easy for the naked eye to see the great swath of land gouged out of the hills on eastern-side Kowloon. By 1999, the smog was so bad that I estimated the visibility was only 2 kilometres across Victoria Harbour. I wished I had pictures to show. Visibility on any regular sunny day nowadays is marginally better.

    • Tom says:

      Air is fairly bad today here in Nanjing, so I’ll take a picture, but it doesn’t compare to Friday.
      When I was in HK I was disappointed by the lack of vis, but it seemed better than where I was coming from in Chengdu. I remember there was one exceptionally clear day there when we all realized that we were much closer to the skyscrapers than we had ever realized. They had all just been hiding in the smog.

  4. Sasha says:

    A new joke among me and my friends is “you know it’s good weather when you can only see the pollution not smell it!” clearly my standards of good weather have dropped since coming to China. It should never have come to that! I know one teacher who came to China and planned to stay a year, he left after just 5 months because the pollution aggravated his asthma so much. The pollutions really is a very serious concern, I often wonder just how damaged my lungs are just from the pollution and passive smoking!

    • Tom says:

      Don’t worry too much Sasha, your lungs will slowly heal from all the pollution. However each year of breathing this kind of filth does slowly increase your risk of lung cancer. Short term effects like asthma are much more concerning. ER doctor here told me he has seen a number of foreigners develop emphysema after a few weeks in China. It’s nasty nasty stuff.

  5. I don’t want to scare the pants off people here about how bad aerial pollution has become in Hong Kong as well as China (or indeed around the world), but let me give you an example. My dad bought 10 one-ton rolls of white woodfree printing paper in 1947. (Never mind why he bought it.) Those rolls were still in pristine, printable condition in 1981 and which were used for high-speed litho web printing that year. The two rolls of one-ton white woodfree that I myself bought three years (2008) ago are no longer in usable condition. Identical storage conditions. Tell me things are not improving, please.

    • Bill Rich says:

      Why don’t you think on the positive side. Just consider all the criminal records that were recorded on paper. They will all disappear prompto.

      • Hmm, that I did not consider, seeing that I work an honest living with crooks – ahem – I mean, bankers, lawyers, accountants and government officials…

      • Tom says:

        This example from HK is pretty shocking. Just wondering, if you had to give a % how much of the pollution would you say was created in HK and how much has blown in from Guangdong?

    • Actually, the Hong Kong Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Protection keep first-class statistics on pollution here literally for decades. To cut a long story short, the HK government’s official position is that about 90% of HK’s pollution originates from the Pearl River Delta area, mainly because HK stopped having an effective manufacturing base since around the mid-1980s, coinciding with the relocation of HK’s manufacturing sector to the PRD. Official stats come out quarterly or half-yearly in HK (sorry, too hard for me to provide links), but the PRD origins of pollution are well known to many (if not most) Hongkongers.

  6. Jen says:

    I asked my Nanjing college students why the pollution was so bad today. They looked at me then looked at each other confusedly and replied, “Do you mean the fog?” I may have been a bit cruel with my, “People, this is NOT fog.”

    • Joel says:

      haha, I’ve had that same conversation so many times. I don’t know why people tend to talk about it that way — if it’s because the news/weather reports are so skewed (see my link above), or if it’s just a language/translation thing, or what. But when I’m having a “bad China day”, I tell them that when it’s dry outside and you can smell it (never mind that the pollution ratings are off the scale), it’s not called “fog”!

    • All of you are much better in Chinese than I am, so I’ll hazard that 烟雾 (yan wu = smog) just becomes taken as 雾 (wu = fog). Even in Hong Kong, there are loads of people who can’t be altogether sure of the difference between 烟雾 and 雾. The over-60s are in a haze (if you forgive the pun!) because they tend to use 烟雾 (yeen moh) and 雾 (moh) practically synonymously in old-style Cantonese. Compounding the confusion, TV here regularly uses the Cantonese 煙霞 (= mist : jin1 haa4; yan1 xia2 ) for smog in weather reports. I may be totally off-mark about this since I grew up already knowing smog vs. fog even in Cantonese. But the good thing is, whatever the nomenclature, Hongkongers know smog ain’t fog.

  7. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Read Jonathan Watts’ book “When a Billion Chinese Jump” for a more indepth look at the environmental challenges facing China.

  8. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Interesting that mist is jin1 haa4 in Cantonese. An old Scots word for mist, which is regularly used here, even on BBC Scotland is HAAR. It really does mean mist – mist which drifts in from the sea and prettily reduces driving visibility but is otherwise harmless.

  9. […] evidence of heavy pollution is clearly visible in cadavers of all ages that have blackish lungs. From personal experience, I know that even the pollution levels found in Nanjing (often less than half of what is seen in […]

  10. […] 在我所工作的医院,医生经常告诉我这样的故事,为了帮助孩子免受哮喘困扰,绝望的父母只好离开中国(这通常是有效的)。其他人也告诉我严重污染的证据,在各年龄段的尸体上都发现了肉眼清晰可见的肺部阴影。凭我的个人经历,即使是南京的污染水平(通常不到北京的一半)也足以让我觉得难受。 […]

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