China's Airpocalypse Didn't Kill Me, It Only Killed My Spirit

There is a moment, as your plane makes its decent into Beijing on a particularly smoggy day, that your heart sinks. As you drop below the cloud ceiling, the bright sunlight streaming in through the plane's windows becomes sepia-filtered, and everything takes on a dirty, dark, yellow-brown hue. You can smell the filthy air creeping into the plane, a sickly, burning rubber aroma so thick it almost has a taste. Your breath shallows instinctively.

The last time I landed in Beijing was in January of this year, during a particularly bad stretch of pollution referred to as the "Airpocalypse." Even inside the airport, the baggage claim was shrouded in a soupy gray fog. I lived in Beijing for five years, from 2007 to 2012, and as much as I love the city, I never got used to breathing air this dirty. It's the reason I left.

China's poor air quality is in the news again this week, as Beijing's air quality index ascends to a level so bad that it's considered a health emergency. Things are even worse in the northeastern city of Harbin, which is smothered in a thick blanket of particulate matter 40 times higher than the international safety standard. This is probably the result of the government switching on the centrally controlled heat on Sunday. In China, heating--much of it from coal-burning furnaces--starts in all of the buildings on the same day, regardless of the weather.

Not that winter is the only time Chinese air is bad. Statistics released earlier this year by the Ministry of Environmental Protection showed that air quality in Beijing was deemed unsafe for more than 60 percent of the days in the first half of 2013. It's almost as bad in the rest of the country's cities. The air pollution results in a host of long-term health problems that lead to 1.2 million premature deaths a year.

I wasn't worried about China's pollution killing me, though. I left because it was hurting my quality of life. Beijing's dirty air drains my energy, making me feel lethargic and slightly sick all the time. For a healthy adult, living in Beijing is a bit like living at a high elevation--you acclimatize to a certain extent, and might even no longer notice how it affects you day to day. But as soon as you leave, it's like returning to sea level. My energy level skyrockets, and my brain feels better, more awake.

On my visit in January, a friend and I walked about two blocks to dinner and back through thick, soupy smog with an Air Pollution Index of 755 (on a scale that's not even meant to get that high--it was designed to go from 0 to 500, and Canada, for comparison's sake, rarely gets past 70). About an hour later, I felt so nauseous that I was convinced I had food poisoning. I lay on the couch, waiting for the symptoms to get worse, but instead I got a dull headache; the nausea never reached my stomach from my throat. I realized it wasn't the food making me sick--it was the air. Walking outside for 20 minutes had knocked me off my feet.

I like to run, and while living in China, I jogged outside in Beijing's parks for years before the growing pollution eventually drove me to join a gym, with closed windows and air filters. There is something so desperately dystopian about being cloistered in a fancy gym, on brand-new, expensive equipment, overlooking a beautiful public riverside jogging trail shrouded in a dusky gray smog. Strangely, the haze has a way of bringing problems into sharp focus--not just pollution itself, but the climate change it accelerates, and the poverty made worse by these desperate conditions, the endless traffic jams of idle motors circling the city. The smog blankets it all, unites it all into one ugly, insurmountable problem. It gets to me.

As much as I love Beijing, the pollution there made me grateful that I have somewhere to escape, a place where the air is still relatively pristine and clean. I'm from rural upstate New York, a region so drastically different from Beijing that coming home feels like visiting another world. The contrast is so sharp, and so fundamentally important, that it becomes hard to think of air, water, and land as anything but sacred--and makes it hard to believe that there are some politicians who are willing to gut the Clean Air Act and other laws that keep it safe.

Which isn't to say it takes an American upbringing to realize that China's air pollution is atrocious. Environmental pollution has become the number one source of social unrest in China. Without free speech or an elected government, people are turning to social networks and Internet forums to speak out and organize public protests. It took years just to get the government to report the accurate Air Pollution Index. Up until 2012, the only accurate reading in Beijing came from the U.S. embassy's Twitter feed, which most Beijingers couldn't access because it is locked up behind the "Great Firewall of China," which keeps certain websites--including Facebook and the New York Times--inaccessible to most residents.

But as attention and pressure mounts, the Chinese government has responded; it is now devoting $275 billion (roughly the GDP of Hong Kong) to fighting air pollution over the next five years. "I think the tide has turned," Barbara Finamore, director of NRDC's Asia program, told NPR earlier this year. (Note: NRDC publishes OnEarth.) "The government recognizes that the people are demanding cleaner air, cleaner water, cleaner food. And they have at least said they are going to do something about it." Which makes me hope that maybe someday in the future, when I land in Beijing, I won't have to hold my breath.

This story was originally published by OnEarth.