White skies, smiling at me

White skies, smiling at me

For the past week or so, Beijing has suffered from some of the worst pollution it has seen in years. The pollution levels seemed to peak on Saturday when the U.S. Embassy in Beijing’s popular @BeijingAir twitter feed, which uses standards from the Environmental Protection Agency, posted a reading of 755 on the Air Quality Index standard. The scale only goes up to 500. Ed Wong in the New York Times reported that "levels between 301 and 500 are ‘Hazardous,’ meaning people should avoid all outdoor activity. The World Health Organization has standards that judge a score above 500 to be more than 20 times the level of particulate matter in the air deemed safe."

Three quick points:

1. What’s different this time?

Besides the scale; which, though depressing, is not unprecedented, Chinese media is more openly reporting on the weather. This is cannibalized from an email from a friend in Beijing, who wants to remain anonymous:  

China’s state broadcaster CCTV used to call pollution "heavy fog" (dawu) they’re now using the term that means something close to "haze". (wumai) On Friday they dedicated a surprising amount of time to the issue, and a Jan. 12 article on the Chinese weather service website reported that the air pollution was higher than the index is designed to handle.

The friend in Beijing also mentioned changing attitudes among Chinese towards pollution:

"Before the outrage over the discrepancy between official statistics, American embassy PM2.5 statistics, and individual perceptions of pollution, I had not one example of someone using the Chinese word for haze in casual conversation nor in weather reports. With this first bout of bad winter pollution I am shocked by the level of coverage but more so that air pollution is no longer "heavy fog" but now "haze."

PM 2.5 refers to the smaller polluting particles that have not typically been included in government air quality statistics. This Wall Street Journal blog post offers a comprehensive explanation of the term and how it entered the Chinese lexicon, as well as further examples of state media referring to China’s ivory skies.  

2. How do foreigners deal with the pollution?

Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a Beijing-based correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, writes about her family rules: "Above 100, and the air purifiers — all four of them — go on. Above 200, we wear face masks outdoors. Above 300 and no one exercises or plays outside, even with a face mask on. Above 500 and we try not to go out at all."

For my last 2+years in Beijing I lived in an apartment that, when I leaned out the window, had an unobstructed view of the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, a pair of roughly 100 feet high structures that were just over 2 miles away. When I could see the towers, I would run outside; otherwise, no deal.

3. What do you call pollution this gross?

Ed Wong writes of a day "when all of Beijing looked like an airport smokers’ lounge," and cited Beijing residents online described the air as "postapocalyptic," "terrifying" and "beyond belief." The second worst day I remember in China, the skies were the color of gargled milk. The worst day the sky managed to turn colorless.