December 8th, 2011
12:58 AM GMT
Hong Kong (CNN) - I roll my eyes when people here in Hong Kong complain this city’s air quality is bad. My reply? Try living in Beijing.
This past week we saw some of the worst smog to smother China’s capital this year. More than 360 flights were cancelled in and out of Beijing on Tuesday alone. Thousands of passengers around the country were stranded. And both infants and the elderly across the region were rushed to hospitals for breathing problems – their mouths and noses covered by oxygen masks.
It seems things haven’t changed. From 2000 to 2006 I lived in China; four of those years were in Beijing. And I remember very similar scenes. Looking back on my time then – and reporting on China’s air pollution problems today – it’s as if history continues to repeat itself.
Memory 1: A dusting of grey, a shooting of black and the taste of metal
By the look of my hair, I had aged a few decades by the time I came back home one particularly polluted evening in Beijing. I hadn’t realized that fact until my then-roommate asked what had happened. Some of the city’s haze had found a final resting spot on my do, giving me a salt-and pepper-spray.
That’s a fairly innocuous scene to describe but forgive this next honest one: I have never seen blacker stuff come out of my nose than when I lived in Beijing. It’s not often you learn to appreciate the body’s air filtration system then after seeing what said system filters out. Enough said.
And have you ever tasted the air and been able to describe it as dusty and metallic? At its worst, that’s what Beijing’s air tasted like. And deep down you just knew that you a) shouldn’t be able to taste air and b) that it shouldn’t be metallic. That’s just not right.
Memory 2: When I lived in Beijing I thought no air could be worse than that city’s air
And I’m even more convinced of it today.
Beijing’s municipal health bureau says lung cancer rates have risen 60% over the past ten years. The disease is now the number one killer for the capital’s residents. To be sure, China’s cultural affinity with cigarettes is in large part to blame. But China’s air quality really does add insult to injury.
And as the country’s air quality becomes a topic of conversation so does the U.S. embassy’s air monitoring station in Beijing. You might remember it jumped to online fame last year for its air quality reading of “crazy bad”. It measures particulates as small as 2.5 microns across. (For comparison, a strand of hair can be as ‘wide’ as 100 microns across.)
The U.S. embassy spokesperson, Richard Buangan, told me that the station maxed out on its measuring ability this past Sunday. The limit is 500. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limit is 35. Crazy bad, indeed. Mr. Buangan said it passed 500 on Sunday at 5:22pm Beijing time. From then through early Wednesday, its reading reported these two words: “very unhealthy”.
I challenge you to find someplace else that has consistently worse air quality.
Memory 3: People just seemed to bear the smog and dust…and move on
But now, China’s citizens are losing their patience and they have a public platform to voice their anger. With the rise of Sina Weibo in China – the country’s version of Twitter – so have risen the voices of discontent.
Our team in Beijing spotlighted a few of these for this article. They show that fallout from this latest smog event doesn’t just involve particulate matter – it includes suspicion, caution and frustration.
JOSEPH-SHEN：In 2006, Beijing shut down two monitoring sites which showed the worst air pollution. In 2008, monitoring stations were moved outside of the 6th ring road. That’s why the data showed that Beijing’s air quality got improved.
小萝莉不是solinda：Beijing has severe air pollution, and one will be poisoned as long as he breathes. Don’t forget to wear mask if you go out.
yico黄：Beijing’s air quality is crazy bad. The air smelled strange yesterday morning, and I had the symptoms similar to catching a cold last night, such as sneezing. My colleagues told me that they coughed a lot. However, relevant departments still said that the air quality was good. As a pregnant woman, I am extremely angry.
On top of all this, of 1000 people polled by Sina Weibo, 52% said they wanted to leave Beijing because of the latest smog.
For those who can’t, they are the people who have pushed sales of masks and air filters into the proverbial stratosphere.
The China Daily, the country’s English language paper, reported Wednesday that air cleaning products were the most searched objects on Taobao.com – a site similar to Amazon.com in the United States. Another online vendor, 360buy.com, says it saw a 50% jump in sales of air cleaning products between October and November.
Ah Beijing. You make me thankful for that which I have: cleaner air. Relative to you, we all can definitely breathe a (cleaner) sigh of relief.
CNN's Helena Hong contributed to this article from Beijing.
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