A joke doing the rounds in Beijing recently goes as follows: “If we start selling PM 2.5 masks, we would be filthy rich!” “Yes, but nobody will be able to see us selling the masks”. Such jokes about the smog seem unceasing. Environmental issues became the major topic at this year’s annual session of the National People’s Congress. Recent research on the most polluted Chinese cities only added fuel to the fire, showing that only three of 74 major Chinese cities meet the national standards set for clear air in 2013, the environmental protection office reported Saturday.
China Daily reports:
“Haikou, capital of southernmost Hainan province, Zhoushan, an island city of East China’s Zhejiang province, and Lhasa, capital of Tibet autonomous region, met the national standard for fine air last year with an average AQI (Air Quality Index) value under 100, said Wu Xiaoqing, vice minister of environmental protection. “
Amongst the top ten cities reported to have the worst air pollution, the first eight positions were all confidently taken by cities in Hebei province, including Shijiazhuang with PM2.5 averaging at 351 and Xingtai with levels at a hazardous 438. Beijing was rated ninth on the list with PM2.5 standing at 340.
According to Wu Xiaoqing, vice minister of environmental protection, the country’s worst regional offenders in emissions are North China’s Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, East China’s Yangtze Delta region, and South China’s Pearl River Delta region. Occupying only eight percent of China’s territory, they consume 43 percent of its coal, produce 55 percent of the country’s steel, 40 percent of cement, and 52 percent of its petrol and diesel, according to the vice minister.
Wu said that smog that shrouded the cities in late February hit 15 provinces and municipalities, accounting for 19 percent of China’s territory. Adding that emissions from coal consumption, industrial production, vehicles, and dust from construction sites and roads all contributed to the smog.
Smog tends to hit Chinese cities in winter because of a national heating system that is largely dependent on coal. Visibility in some eastern cities was reduced to less than 50 meters and to less than five meters in the worst hit places, where PM2.5 concentrations hit 500 micrograms per cubic meter, while the recommended safe level for the pollutant is 25 per cubic meter.
Authorities gave various reasons for why the smog was so severe, including: not enough wind, emissions from cars, coal burning in the north of the country, and industrial pollution from the large amount of factories. Air pollution has long been a thorn in the side of Chinese citizens. Not only is the air polluted, but up to 70 percent of rivers and lakes are also contaminated with dangerous substances.
The pollution is known to cause serious and sometimes fatal health problems. Last year, the case of an eight-year-old Chinese girl who contracted lung cancer hit the headlines as she, tragically, became the nation’s youngest ever lung cancer patient. It was widely speculated that her disease was caused by pollution in the area she lived: by a busy road in Jiangsu Province, highly polluted by car emissions. To make things worse, a survey last year showed that life expectancy in Northern China has decreased by 5.5 years over a 20 year period. The number of deaths caused by air pollution is less in the south due to the absence of central heating in the winter months.
Pollution has become so bad that people are reportedly leaving the country in their droves to escape it. Young people now prefer to leave the country during the national holidays just to gain some brief respite from the dreadful air, hoping they may receive a short-term health boost at the same time.
Not only locals, but foreigners are becoming frustrated too, particularly those with young children who fear their families’ health at risk. Foreigners who once considered China to be manna from heaven are rapidly changing their outlook. Health problems related to the low air quality, for many, are increasingly outweighing any positives.
In the late 1950s, Londoners faced the same situation as Beijingers today. However, slowly but surely the British government took measures tackle the air problem, which saw drastic improvement. Perhaps, just maybe, there is hope for Beijing yet.