Jen looks up at me, mid-choke, and smiles sheepishly, like I’ve caught her in the act of pilfering the last pretzel.
Then she rasps: “Holy s#!t, Kirsten, did you see the PM levels today?”
“You sound worse,” I interrupt her, fixated on that cough.
But la petite Canadienne just ignores me. “They’re in the 400s, Kirsten! In Chengdu! I looked them up for Toronto, just to compare, and you know what the values are there? … Fifty!”
The numbers she’s citing are all too familiar to me. But for the uninitiated, PM levels indicate the pollution index: the air toxicity as measured by counting the number of pollutant particles in the atmosphere.
According to China’s own government in Beijing, last week the air was measured at 700 micrograms per cubic meter. Now consider that the World Health Organization (WHO) considers safe anything under 25 micrograms per cubic meter.
And at that moment, my roommate and I were breathing 16 times that much pollution.
And by the way, we’re nowhere near Beijing.
But I’m too slow to pick up the relevance of her reference because I’m sidetracked by the death rattle her lungs are making. “Maybe you need to see a—“
“My acupuncturist says it’s all this crap in the air,” says Jen, who has lived in China for 5 years. “And my doctor said so too! That’s why I can’t get rid of this.” She pauses for more hacking, then: “Holy s#!t, man, I need to get out of here. I’m so glad I’m moving back to Canada next month.”
She pauses, considering. “Oh, man, you should think about getting out of here, too.”
The heated topic caught fire last week when, incredibly, the Chinese government admitted its inaugural “orange fog” warning—a red alert that spread across the country in an inferno of information.
At which point a panicked throng of Chinese stampeded to corner stores, where facemasks and air purifiers fairly sailed off the shelves.
In Beijing, such panics are not necessarily common.
But they’re not rare, either.
The government quickly issued advisories warning children, the elderly, and anyone suffering from respiratory illness to stay indoors.
Why? These spikes in China’s air pollution have been shown to trigger the premature and sudden deaths in such groups.
Sudden. Immediate. As in, that day.
The situation was dire enough that even the government-controlled Global Times began to call for the Party to aggressively address the problem and, finally, “publish truthful environmental data to the public.”
Welcome to a world without the EPA. China did indeed buy your jobs with the lure of lax environmental laws … but at what price?
Perhaps equally remarkable was the public outcry from citizens who normally remain obediently mum about their government’s actions.
“Leaders are aware that the people can wait 20 years or more for democracy, but they can’t wait that long for clean air,” former investigative reporter Liu Jianqiang is quoted in The Wallstreet Journal.
The inventory of damage is harrowing, and extensive:
1. Cancer is now China’s leading cause of death because of industrial pollution, according to the country’s own Ministry of Health.
2. Chinese environmental experts projected in 2005 that annual premature deaths due to air pollution would reach 380,000 in 2010 and 550,000 in 2020.
3. Measurements just this month showed levels of air pollution was literally off the chart—higher than the maximum 755-mcg that the US Embassy’s equipment can even measure!
4. Only one percent of China’s 560 million urban residents can breathe air deemed safe by the EU.
One study even made a connection between each decrease of 10 micrograms per cubic meter in a city’s fine-particulate concentration and an estimated increase in life expectancy (about 0.6 years).
To put it quite plainly, if Beijing’s particulate concentration even reached the polluted levels of Los Angeles–America’s most polluted city–life expectancy would actually theoretically increase by over five years!
Where I live in Chengdu, the factories migrated outward from the center of town, but their exhaust fumes output were only replaced by that of increased traffic. Now in the winter months, this city that is home to China’s pandas seems perpetually blanketed in bleak grey, the poor air quality compounded by the damp atmosphere and the increased use of coal-powered heating.
One 2011 analysis reported a 4.15 percent prevalence rate for children in Chengdu to develop asthma, which is double the national rate of 1.97 percent.
“I encourage people with children not to consider extended tours in China,” one Western-trained doctor was reported as saying. “Those little lungs.”
Last year in October, I woke up one morning with lungs feeling loaded down with lead. After I could no longer suffer through my condition I consulted a clinic that catered to foreign patients, where I was diagnosed with pneumonia.
“This is normal for expats,” the American doctor assured me as she held a stethoscope to my side.
My eyebrows pinched together. “What do you mean, normal?”
“A lot of foreigners who move here come down with respiratory illnesses within the first year,” she said. “Your body just isn’t used to the pollution, so it’s more susceptible.”
“Are you trying to tell me that pollution gave me pneumonia?”
“It made a perfect breeding ground out of your lungs,” she explained.
Just a year ago, American embassies across China launched a defiant Twitter campaign, tweeting their own air quality evaluations that proved starkly different from those offered by Beijing, as a service to American expatriates living here.
And China promptly responded by declaring their action “illegal.”
So, so very China.
… The embassies ignored the announcement and went right on tweeting away.
At night, I struggle to sleep as I hear earsplitting coughs reverberate from Jen’s room. And in the daytime, I spend my hours just jogging distance from Foxconn. Walking outside, I can’t see 200 feet ahead of me, thanks to the viscous grey cloaking the Industrial Zone where I work
In a strangely detached way, I ponder what it’s doing to my body right that second. What it’s already done.
What it’s been doing to the people who live here, and have nowhere else to go.
The greatest cost has been human, but even that cost translates to cash. Recently, Beijing University and Greenpeace conducted a joint study that projected the premature and pollution-related deaths of 8,600 people in 2012 alone cost China $1 billion in fiscal deficit.
And that was taken only from a sample of four cities. Doesn’t seem worth it any way you look at it, does it?
So what’s the pricetag on progress?
The answer is China’s proudest and most plentiful commodity: its people.
Therefore the next question is: when does China stop treating them as expendable?
If the unprecedented outrage emanating from both the media and the people is any indication, it looks as if the time for that is now.