December 8th, 2011
12:58 AM GMT
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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.

To be sure, I have fond memories of Beijing – of my friends, of great food and of helpful people. Of its air quality, I do not.

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.

U.S. ambassador on China air pollution

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”.

China air pollution: 'Slightly polluted' or 'hazardous'?

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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Filed under: AsiaBusinessChina


soundoff (41 Responses)
  1. Victor

    I worked in TIanjin for a month – the air quality is horrible there too...

    December 8, 2011 at 1:18 am |
  2. Gordon

    Ramy Inocencio seems to think the Mainland's horrible air quality somehow makes HK's air quality not as bad as we think. After all, why criticize something for being merely bad if it's not the absolute worst we've ever seen on the planet?

    December 8, 2011 at 1:27 am |
  3. Paul

    The whole world wants the chinese to make our stuff, then we complain about the consequences.

    December 8, 2011 at 2:22 am |
  4. zoosphere

    My attention got caught by the part of the article, " lung cancer rates have risen 60% over the past ten years". The air pollution seems a huge problem in world metropolitan cities. In this article, however only the air pollution in Beijing is described, and no pollutions in other biggest cities in the world is discussed. It sounds a bit unfair and unidirectional to me. It could be taken as disrespectful to the Chinese government, don't you think? Even though the extent of the air pollutions in the U.S. might be much less than the one in Beijing, I wonder the air pollutions in the biggest cities in the U.S. still exist, and the reevaluation of the air regulation is necessary there, too.

    December 8, 2011 at 2:41 am |
  5. Brian

    I saw on the news yesterday that China has over 50, 000 child abductions a year. Their preschool vans (a 9 passenger van) carried over 60 people. Every strange story I see, it usually happens in China. Hmmm...nothing personal but China seems very F#%& UP!

    December 8, 2011 at 3:02 am |
  6. Jaagie

    I don't think that Beijing's smog can be worse than Ulaanbaatar capital city of Mongolia. The author should try later.

    December 8, 2011 at 3:07 am |
  7. John

    @Brian, if that's how you judge a country's state, you are totally F#%& UP!

    December 8, 2011 at 6:18 am |
  8. Strangewalk

    The food in China is probably the world's best, and its air probably the worst–what a shame right? However, Taiyuan in Shanxi Province has much worse air than Beijing, and Beijing's air is no worse on average than Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Tianjin and many other cities. It's not just the air either, the rivers and lakes are just as bad, and the soil too. China needs to wake up before it's too late, and too late is coming soon. If they do, maybe they can save the world. If they don't, maybe they'll destroy it.

    December 8, 2011 at 6:44 am |
  9. Dingdong

    Im not downplaying air quality in china, but I'm in Delhi right now and come often for business and the air here is horrible right now. I can hardly see the buildings across the highway about 1 mile away and the air actually smells so bad that my clothes stink. The hotel has an air filter system and even with that, my towels smell, and even the tissues smelled when I blew my nose, which like the author states, results in a demonstration of how well one's nose hair filtration system works...

    December 8, 2011 at 7:23 am |
  10. Smile.

    It is terrible air in shenzhen. I feel worry.

    December 8, 2011 at 8:34 am |
  11. John

    Simple, those hypos who has money to complain on weibo or CNN just stop to drive their cars and turn off their computers, problem solved.
    All elites around the world are the same: they consumed all the resources and generated all the waste, and then they blame the others for the environmental problems.

    December 8, 2011 at 9:05 am |
  12. Dingdong

    @john, no ones belittling or blaming china for the pollution, just stating its there and that it's bad. Western cities were god awfully polluted when they were manufacturing centers and had no environmental regulations. Have you ever heard of "London fog?". London never had real fog, it was all smog. Same in older US cities. When Pittsburgh was THE steel town in the world, people said you couldn't see the sun.

    December 8, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  13. hey, that's a nice stress

    I'm sitting right here in my Beijing apartment. These last few days have been overcast, with some snow,
    but as for smog I'm here to tell you, not a lot. I've seen LA back in the day. I've seen lots of very nasty
    Chinese cities. Hong Kong is by far the very worst. But Beijing is mostly clear. Blue skies even within
    the past few weeks. Smog doesn't "suddenly appear" like that. It's fog and, sure, some smog. The
    Beijing government cleaned up for the Olympics. Before that, Beijing was bad. But since then, they've
    kept things well under control. NEVER in Beijing have I had discolored mucous AT ALL. I have no
    reason to lie on behalf of Beijing. Just saying what's true.

    December 8, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  14. Kim

    I used to live in Tianjin. I was there three years, and I remember people counting how many "blue sky days" there were. They tried really hard to start cleaning up before the Olympics, and they shut down all the factories for quite a while. I don't know how it is now.

    I do know that the discussion about discolored snot is...well... it was for me anyway, very true. YUCK! Blackened soot was always everywhere because everyone was using coal-fired stoves with low-grade coal. It was affordable. People were tolerant of individual stoves. The factories belching out crud? People weren't so thrilled with those, but then they regarded them as signs of progress. I can understand now, with the economic downturn world-wide, how they might be frustrated with it.

    Ironically, I didn't have allergy problems in China, because all of my allergies are related to plants - flowers, flowering trees, grasses, etc. I remember when they started cleaning up and trying to plant roses (ah, that first batch all died) I started having a little bit of allergy problems, but it was very, very brief.

    I moved to Japan and all spring and summer it's hell on my allergies. Very clean here, ironically it kills me!

    December 8, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  15. Tara

    I've been in Beijing since March and since then have developed a chronic cough and continuous post nasal drips, blowing some truly horrifying things into my tissues. I've never seen such filth and dirt come out of my nose! I'm glad I'm getting out of here in the New Year.

    December 8, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  16. mr774

    Behind a great growth of economical aspect, there are many dark sides in China.
    Air pollution is one of them.

    December 8, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  17. david

    60 percent cancer rate. great. let them breathe in deep. better than one child policy.

    December 8, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  18. Robert

    I thought of working in China for a while... then I visited Shenzhen just a few weeks ago. Liked most things about it but was shocked by the bad air quality. Went farther south... and all the way, even in the country side, in the villages, the air is bad. It does not get clean even outside of the large cities. There are maybe only small differences in how much pollution you can see. If you have lived outside the area, it is very easy to notice, you look towards the horizon... or even across the street and the buildings start losing sharpness and you see grayish haze. Look not too far into the distance and things look like through a mist... kind of like in the photo for this article. I cringe to think what this does to people's health... especially to the children.

    December 8, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  19. Brian

    @John, easy there little fella, I'm just saying, shoving 68 people into a 9 person mini van is F#%& UP! Think! Try to imagine this in your head. 68 people in a 9 seater! It's like putting in about 40 people in to your 5 seater sedan. The fact that most of these were children (preschoolers) is more F#%& UP! You got preschools and kindergartens knowing putting these kids in danger everday. Then you have the parents that know this but still sends their kids to these schools, and then you have the government who know this but do nothing about it. Come on little guy, if that not F#%& UP, then what is? ...and I'n not even going into the hundreds of other F#%& UP news I've heard coming out of China.

    December 8, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  20. Jason

    @david: What goes around comes around, that's all I'll say.

    December 8, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  21. lionofnarnia

    The world doesnt want china to make our stuff, china does. Your air quality is 100% your problem. Deal with it, or forever be a whining child who will never be respected.

    December 8, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
  22. That'snotTrue:[

    @Brain
    Tha's because all the news that you see from the US are 95% negative on China, you know Washington needs a scapegoat for all of the messes they created. Watch some Asian news, or BBC. IF you think that CNN doesn't do it's own fair shair of propaganda... you're living in a cave!!!
    &&& To condem a whole country with 1.2 billion people, you're just a narrow minded racist invidual.

    December 8, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
  23. lionofnarnia

    chinese spin doctor, go buy a mask.

    December 8, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  24. That'snotTrue:[

    @Lion of narnia/ kitty from hell
    Will you stop trolling! Go to Asia or something... seriously you must be shovelingsnw, never one positive word from you!

    December 8, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  25. lionofnarnia

    The john, pauls, and bobs defending china or trying to change topic to US, are chinese. I guess.they are ashamed of.their.culture and.country.

    December 8, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
  26. John

    Being an American, I have also lived in Asia for many years, inckuding China. China, by far, has the worst pollution I have ever witnessed both in terms of air and water. All one needs to do is fly into any other 12+ large cities and China and it will become very apparent just how bad it is. It is VERY VERY bad and getting worse.

    December 9, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  27. John

    I must add, many countries is Asia have horrible pollution and I live in one that has the problem, however it is not as bad a s China, where I have also lived. Any of us having lived in US, Canada, etc. let us just be thankful our environments are not as nearly polluted as those of much of Asia and the Middle East.

    December 9, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  28. CheeseSteak

    Seems the Chinese are just filthy people. Spitting, chain smoking, bad teeth, eating things live scorpions and chicken fetuses. I could care less how many Chinese die from this air pollution if it wasn't these slobs poisoning our planet.

    December 10, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  29. Mike R

    Living in Shanghai, the pollution is quite bad here too. Often depends on wind direction and strength. Wish they would do something about it.

    December 10, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  30. Craig

    Humans would have to be one of the stupidest creatures on this panet. How can anyone say we are developed in any scence of the word. no country is better then any other. They all pollute the air we breathe. They are all as stupid as each other.

    December 10, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  31. Jim

    I lived in Inner Mongolia in the early 2000's and I lived in SoCal's Inland Empire in the late 2000's. Despite the former's reputation for heavy industry, as an asthmatic I actually found the latter to be worse, particularly in the autumn.

    December 10, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  32. Simon Leung

    It is toxic; it is the photo chemical smog

    December 11, 2011 at 4:21 am |
  33. CBB

    Yes it is true Beijing is the worst city in the Solar system in terms of air quality. But whatever few cities I've being to New York is the worst noise polluted city in the Solar system. After 3 days I escaped from NY deafning noise.

    December 11, 2011 at 6:44 am |
  34. Itzy

    GOSH!!!! i lived in Guang Zhou for 1 year and the air was already bad. i dont get it, if last year they controlled some industry for the Asian Games why cant the make it for a better and normal life living.

    December 11, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  35. George

    One day my teacher was telling the whole class how to get rid of stress. "Everyone, breathe in and breathe out." Then one of my classmates said, "But this is CHINA!" LOL :)

    December 12, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  36. daniel

    damn the communist party
    they torture chinese people, but the situation wont last long

    December 13, 2011 at 3:36 am |
  37. Rick

    Supposedly Teheran has the worst smog in the world. Imagine how bad THAT is compared to Beijing.

    December 23, 2011 at 4:49 am |
  38. calls for an eyeroll

    And what's this I read about reducing EPA regulation via this "payroll tax" bill? Ah, progress. We don't want to owe money to China so we'll mimic them, have child labor, terribly polluted air, and manufacturing jobs. If people die from working just 20 years in their industries it'll keep their unemployment rates low. Turnover, baby!

    December 23, 2011 at 5:39 am |
  39. Familia

    monmeevt is essentially to weaken US Defense capabilities, to the advantage of Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea and other sworn enemies of the United States of America. In more honest times,

    February 27, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  40. Jimbobjed

    Yeah this is what conservatives would like to see America's air look like by eliminating the EPA. I think the code phrases they use are "small government" and "job creators".

    May 1, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  41. Marketing Research in China

    Thank you so much for sharing! This is very helpful!
    I think that China now there is a lot of interesting things, and I also want to experience all. Whether clothes, food, travel and transportation there had been substantial change. You also mentioned the interesting part.
    But China's development seems to lack something, something that I look at these interesting things feel a bit worried, even a little sad. I think they should be is not the only person to feel so.
    In short, Thanks a lot!

    February 8, 2013 at 8:41 am |

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