Monday, January 14, 2013

Masks for Beijing

My Twitter feed has been ablaze with comments about Beijing's recent air quality. Lets just say the folks at Mordor would be proud. The air is horrendous even to many who are accustomed to Beijing. It's a serious issue with implications for daily life. In the words of Didi Kirsten Tatlow on the International Herald Tribune:
With Beijing’s air pollution soaring to seemingly new, awful records this weekend, the classic parenting dilemma of “What shall we do with the kids?” had a grimly obvious answer: Slap on the antipollution face masks and go shopping for another air purifier...

Of course, the problem wasn’t limited to Beijing. As this photograph from NASA appeared to show, pollution was severe across much of eastern China (Beijing is within the blue circle).

And on state media’s lists of the most polluted cities in China on Saturday, Beijing wasn’t even in the top 10. That honor went to Shijiazhuang and other places.
Tatlow isn't the only person in China with an interest in face masks. For example, see these tweets by writer Adam Minter:

Other reporters in Beijing are finding it necessary to accessorize as well:

Darth Vader/Hannibal lector anti-pollution mask @NPRinskeep @... on Twitpic

Leading to comments such as this:

Tatlow's comment about Shijiazhuang also caught my eye. In all my travels in China, Shijiazhuang's air "impressed" me the most. It wasn't just the haze preventing a crisp view of buildings just across the street. It was the toxic taste of the air. Yes, the taste. When the broth in a bowl of soup I ordered had the same taste I wasn't sure if the air was overwhelming my taste buds or the soup and the air shared a common compound. Whatever the case, I didn't finish the soup.

With an Air Quality Index (AQI) over 800 having been recently reported in Beijing, comments such as those by Anthony Tao in a recent post may not seem ironic:
Highways closed, flights delayed, social unrest stirred… however, there is some good news. The AQI has remained below 400 for each of the last five hours...
For context on what now could count as "good news", consider this recent "good" tweet from an account which provides regular updates of Beijing's air quality as measured by the US Embassy in Beijing:

Even an AQI of 332 is listed as hazardous. And that's just for a 24-hour exposure. Most people in Beijing are not breathing its air for only 24 hours... See here for more information about the AQI.

There are many great pieces to read on Beijing's recent pollution and the evolving reaction of the Chinese people and new services. A post by James Fallows here mentions and comments on several of them. More on this topic later.

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