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China’s Toxic Smog Changing Urban Culture

Toxic smog isn’t just choking China’s urbanites and costing the country billions; it’s changing city culture. The health care costs, premature deaths and material damages caused by China’s air pollution can all be quantified, but the impact of dirty air on the psyches of China’s growing urban population is hard to distill into raw numbers. By talking to Beijing’s residents, the NYT gives us some insight into the city’s evolving cultural patterns:

Levels of deadly pollutants up to 40 times the recommended exposure limit in Beijing and other cities have struck fear into parents and led them to take steps that are radically altering the nature of urban life for their children.

Parents are confining sons and daughters to their homes, even if it means keeping them away from friends. Schools are canceling outdoor activities and field trips. Parents with means are choosing schools based on air-filtration systems, and some international schools have built gigantic, futuristic-looking domes over sports fields to ensure healthy breathing.

Face masks are already a must-have accessory. How long until we start seeing designer masks? China’s burgeoning fashion industry can call it “bleak chic.”

It’s hard to overstate how bad the air is over there, though the name “Airpocalypse” comes pretty close. On January 12, Beijing’s air quality was off-the-charts bad. Over a 24 hour period, China’s capital measured a 586 on the EPA’s Air Quality Index (AQI); that was well above the Index’s “maximum” level of 500, which indicates “hazardous” conditions. Yesterday was more typical, but still awful: Beijing scored a 250 on the AQI, in the “very unhealthy” range.

To put these numbers in context, let’s compare Beijing to America’s smoggiest city: Los Angeles. LA’s worst AQI, according to data obtained from FindtheData, was 182. Even at its worst, LA’s smog was considerably cleaner than Beijing’s today.

It’s not just about health: the toxic smog choking China’s cities is changing the way people live, and not for the better.

[Polluted Shanghai photo courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • ronan

    Waiting for the other shoe (telecommuting evangelism) to drop . . . .

    • Andrew Allison

      It is getting a bit over the top.

  • Andrew Allison

    And it’s not just about China. Thanks to the prevailing winds, much of that crap gets to the US mainland. The air which leaves N. America for Europe is cleaner than when it arrives.

  • Luke Lea

    I wonder what London’s was in the 19th century? Or Birmingham’s and Manchester’s. LA smog was from automobile exhaust, not coal smoke; it was about getting around in cars, not driving industry with coal-fired steam plants. Clean air may be a luxury that China is not yet able to afford.

  • Happycrow

    I distinctly remember driving through LA during a cross-country move as a kid and barely being able to see the curbs from the middle of a three-lane street. If that was a typically-bad smog day, I hesitate to even speculate what living in China must be like, except as a prelude to “Bladerunner.”
    -Russ in Texas

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