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Breathe China’s air at your own risk!

Updated on June 21, 2015
A young boy with an awful cough.. | Photo editing by: TDowling
A young boy with an awful cough.. | Photo editing by: TDowling | Source

China's toxic air impacts world

China has experienced unprecedent- ed growth in the past three decades. This once agrarian nation has changed seemingly overnight into the second largest economy in the world. However, progress has come with a steep price tag: deadly air pollution.

The noxious air that chokes most China cities is caused by:

  • the burning of high-sulfur coal to generate heat and power, especially in northern China
  • the enormous growth in car ownership
  • a total disregard for environmental laws

China now has the world's highest annual incidence of premature deaths caused by air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Over 650,000 Chinese die prematurely each year from ailments related to poor air quality. That’s like losing the city of Baltimore every year.

A study of the cause of deaths in 2010, found that air pollution was ranked seventh on the list worldwide. While in China the adverse effects of poor air quality was the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study published in The Lancet, a British medical journal.

The healthcare community also has determined that mothers breathing toxic air have more premature births and babies with lower birth weight. Exposure to high levels of air pollutants also adversely affects the mental development of infants.

“China has become the world’s largest emitter of mercury, carbon dioxide and other pollutants,” according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology report.

China cities with the worst air pollution are clustered in the north

Beijing, China

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Shijiazhuang, Hebei, China

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Handan, Hebei, China

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Baoding, Hebei, China

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Tangshan, Hebei, China

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Welcome COUGH to China

Watering eyes and itchy throats greet tourists as they leave the airline terminal and step on China’s soil.

The city air they breathe smells like high sulfur coal (rotten eggs) and leaded gasoline. “The air can be nauseating,” said one tourist who attended China’s 2008 Olympics.

Many residents of China’s northern cities would never step outside without donning a mask that covers their mouth and nose, providing some protection from the lethal air.

Some days the air pollution causes such extremely poor visibility that airports have been forced to close in Beijing and Shanghai — China’s two largest cities.

The jet engines in Chinese airlines have to be overhauled and replaced more frequently than in the rest of the world, because sulfur dioxide and other particulates in the air cause the turbine blades to corrode faster than elsewhere.

The power behind China’s economy are the heavy industrial power plants that ring this country’s cities. Throughout China, these generators burn six million tons of high-sulfur coal every day. Their smoke stacks pump tons of carbon, gases, metals and soot into the air turning it into shades of gray, sometimes with tints of orange. Blue sky is a rare sight here.

Many in China’s cities check the air quality index before they decide on their outdoor plans. Once outside, most city dwellers limit the time they are in the open air. Inside, air filtration devices operate in most middle and upper class residences in the highly polluted cities of Shijiazhuang, Handan, Baoding, Tangshan, Jinan, Hengshui, Xian, Zhengzhou and Beijing.

NOTE: While this article focuses on air pollution in China, it isn’t the country’s only concern. Chinese people also worry about the food they eat and the water they drink. And foreigner consumers worry about the defective goods imported from China that injure and kill people.

Beijing, the capital of the China, like many of country’s polluted cities, is located in northern China. With a population of 21 million residents, Beijing is one of the largest cities in the world and the second largest in China. Shanghai is first.

Beijing is the center of the country’s government, culture, education and business. Most of the nation’s companies have their headquarters here. It’s also a transportation hub.

Since many foreign media outlets have reporters stationed in Beijing it allows us to examine this city in great detail.

Roads in Beijing basically are laid out in the four main compass directions. As China has grown during the last three decades, the national highway system has seen tremendous expansion across the country and especially in Beijing.

You can trace Beijing’s growth by the highways circling the city. In the U.S. we call them beltways in China they’re known as ring roads. In 1992, there were two ring roads. Today, there are six ring roads around Beijing. (Another one is in the planning stages.) These beltways roads were constructed to meet the needs of the increased number of cars clogging this city’s streets.

The Forbidden City seen through the smog
The Forbidden City seen through the smog | Source
Guardian Lion at the Forbidden City
Guardian Lion at the Forbidden City | Source

Historic, gridlocked, smoggy Beijing is home to 21 million

Beijing is a contrast of old and new. In its center is The Forbidden City containing the largest ancient palace in the world. The palace, built in the 15 century, was the emperors’ home for 500 years and it houses many historical Chinese relics. Nearby Beijing is the Great Wall of China, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

China's capital city also has a modern skyline, one of the busiest airports in the world and an extensive subway system. Most of it was built in this century. Despite that cars rule here.

Motorists traveling through Beijing learn to live with gridlock. One China tourist website admits, “Driving in Beijing is a painful experience. Be prepared to sit in traffic during rush hours on your tour.” Millions of cars sitting bumper-to-bumper add to the choking air pollution. (Planners project the number of cars in the city will double in five years.)

Beijing’s air quality is 16 times worse than New York City. (Yes, the Big Apple is a smaller city with 8 million residents, but it’s ONLY 40% smaller than Beijing with its population of 21 million.)

Some days the air pollution is so bad in Beijing that people can't see buildings a few blocks away. During these times, motorists drive around in the middle of the day with their headlights on to avoid accidents.

Reporter Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker that his four years in Beijing taught him to listen to his body. Each morning it tells him if it’s a bad smog day. “I’ve learned how to gauge the pollution before I open the curtains; by dawn on the smoggiest days, the lungs ache. The city government does not dwell on the details; its daily air-quality measurement does not even tally the tiniest particles of pollution, which are the most damaging to the respiratory system.”


Some westerners say Beijing’s skies look like London in 1950s or Los Angeles in the 1980s.

The last time Beijing had clear skies was in 2008...

...when the Olympics were held in the city. To project the best image to the world, Beijing officials ordered some changes.

For the two months before the games and during the Olympics construction ceased, factory hours were reduced and an odd-even car license restriction was imposed on motorists — drastically reducing the number of vehicles on the road. Despite these adjustments, many athletes and tourists complained about the air pollution. Chinese officials explained that the smog visitors grumbled about was actually “evaporation and humidity.”

The Chinese said the air quality was sparkling during the summer of 2008. However, some journalists, such as the Wall Street Journal’s Steven Q. Andrews, discovered that the Chinese rigged the pollution numbers reported during the Olympics.

“Beijing achieved stellar results… mainly by moving pollution-measuring stations to less polluted parts of the city, as well as by changing its methodology for measuring pollution,” according to Andrews. The air collection devices were moved outside the sixth ring road “far removed from the polluted hustle and bustle of Beijing,” he reported.

Following the closing ceremonies, when the foreign athletes, tourists and many reporters went home, things returned to normal. If you can call cough-inducing, child-harming skies normal.

With polluters operating unabated for five years after the Olympics a major toxic air outbreak occurred in Beijing in January 2013. “The levels of air pollution have been dangerously high, with thick clouds of smog chasing people indoors, disrupting air travel, and affecting the health of millions,” reported The Atlantic, which included several photos of China’s poisonous air on its webpage.

During this severe smog incident, Beijing authorities ordered school children to stay indoors and factory operating hours were curtailed. Meanwhile, hospitals treated an increasing number of repository problems and stores reported a run on face masks and air purifiers.

Air pollution’s adverse impact on health and business

The Chinese economy has been impacted by the country’s toxic air and these costs have steadily grown, the MIT study determined. Researchers measured costs from both lost labor plus the citizen's increased need for health care and found that air pollution cost the Chinese economy $112 billion in 2005.

“China is embarking on a debate about controlling pollution, comparable to what the U.S. and Europe went through 30 years ago,” reports Bloomberg Business Week.

“The West has shown the problem is manageable,” the business journal continued. “In the 1980s, the U.S. and Europe faced similar (if not as catastrophic) air pollution trouble — with serious smog a recurring feature of life in Los Angeles, for example.”

In June 2013, China’s State Council announced a 10-point air quality improvement plan, which calls for reducing coal consumption and a new reliance on clean energies such as: gas, solar, wind and nuclear. The council also promised the government would put a priority on environment-related technologies and mass transportation.

Environmental Minister Zhou Shengxian said that air pollution had become so severe that the country could “no longer afford further delays in its cleanup efforts,” according to the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based English language newspaper. Zhou also promised polluters will receive harsher penalties, the Morning Post reported in Aug. 2013.

“Progress has been slow as the central government's desire to cut coal consumption and production capacity in energy-intensive sectors have been met with strong opposition from local authorities who fearing [sic] an economic slowdown,” according to the newspaper.

"Is China doing irreparable harm to me and my family?"

Such dreadful conditions make Americans working in China wonder why they're there. In this category is New York Times reporter Edward Wang, who recently was transferred to Beijing. In a column in the New York Times Sunday Review he posed the question: “Is China doing irreparable harm to me and my family?”

“The environmental hazards here are legion and the consequences might not manifest themselves for years or even decades. The risks are magnified for young children…

"That means we are subjecting our 9-month-old daughter to the same risks that are striking fear into residents of cities across northern China, and grappling with the guilt of doing so.”

Since the Olympics, Chinese citizens have exerted some pressure on the government to be more truthful about air quality figures. There has been some changes in that direction. The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection reported that during the first half of 2013 the air quality in Beijing was unsafe over 60 percent of the time.

In 2008, an air monitor was installed on top of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Each hour, someone tweets the figure collected by the roof-top device. The numbers issued by the U.S. are typically higher than what the Chinese report.

Air quality is measured on a 1 to 500 scale. Anything above 100 is considered unhealthy, according to American scientists. The air quality in the U.S. never exceeds 300, except during forest fires. There are many days in Beijing when the U.S. Embassy’s air monitor registers 500. Scientists say it's hazardous to breath air in that range.

“Every morning when I roll out of bed,” says Wang “I check an app on my cellphone” that shows the air quality index measured by the embassy. “I want to see whether I need to turn on the purifiers and whether my wife and I can take our daughter outside. Most days, she ends up housebound.

“I want my daughter to grow up appreciating the outdoors — sunsets and birdcalls and the smell of grass or the shape of clouds,” Wang laments. “That will be impossible if we live for many more years in Beijing. Even with my adult-size lungs, I limit my time outdoors.”


Looking for more? Check...

A detailed report on China’s air pollution is on a website authored by Jeff Hays, an American teacher and writer who currently lives in Japan.

The Cost of China’s Economic Growth- This extensive case study was written by fellow Hubber, Lynda M. Martin. This writer was born in Britain, moved to Canada as a child and married an American. She now lives in Canada and the U.S. and is a great researcher. –TDowling


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    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      5 years ago from Florida

      Thanks for the nice words, Daniel.

      Yes. This is what happens when an autocratic government sets out on unprecedented growth without planning and a total disregard for the millions of its citizens who are suffering the consequences. -TD

    • Daniel_Benson profile image


      5 years ago from London

      Fantastic hub highlighting a hugely contentious issue of great personal interest. Voted up and look forward to reading more of your work!

    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      5 years ago from Florida

      I'm with ya, Lynda. Thanks. -TD

    • lmmartin profile image


      5 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Whenever I read of hear lawmakers here belabor and belittle the EPA I want to ship them off to China for a month so they may learn what is at stake. I'm a lot more worried about being able to breathe than being unemployed. How about you? Good hub. Lynda


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