Last week’s column


Facing the Fears, and Facts,
Of Living With Pollution

January 19, 2007

Rebecca and I first visited Beijing almost two years ago, spending eight days here while trying to decide whether or not to move. About halfway through, the skies became hazy and the air began to smell a bit. The “fog” grew and grew and a day or two later we couldn’t see the high-rise construction project outside our hotel-room window.

“It’s good that you’re seeing this,” said our guide. “The pollution’s not like this all the time but it does happen regularly and you should know that as you make your decision.”

Obviously, it didn’t dissuade us from coming and it wasn’t really much more than a speed bump in our decision-making process. There have been times, however, when I’ve wondered if that lack of attention was foolish. Those thick hazy days do occur regularly and we all fret about them. Flying into Beijing, you can often see a haze hovering above the city, which is surrounded by mountains on three sides.

Even on clear days, there is often a heavy odor in the air, especially on winter mornings when you walk outside and smell fire, presumably from all the coal-burning heaters. Many people complain of a “Beijing cough” or upper respiratory infections that linger for weeks.

Somewhat frighteningly, you get used to all this. But every once in a while, something happens that really makes you wonder. One morning, Eli looked outside and said, “Aw, today’s not going to be any fun. It’s foggy so we can’t play outside.” The school keeps kids indoors on particularly bad days.

The first eight months we lived here, it never rained4. Then the skies opened and there was 30-hour downpour that evoked thoughts of Noah. When the sun finally came out, it felt like a rebirth; everything looked and smelled better. The city had taken a shower and a heavy layer of grime had been washed away. Even the sky sparkled. I looked out a third-floor window and stared dumbfounded at mountains gleaming on the horizon. Were they always there, but I just never looked out the window?

I erased any such doubts shortly when we went out for dinner and turned down a road I often travel. For the first time, it looked like I was on a beautiful country lane. A sunset-painted sky reflected off of mountains to the North and West. The vista was shocking but I was more shaken in the months that followed when I couldn’t see the mountains even on crisp, clear blue-sky days.

We had a couple of really atrocious pollution days in December. In the midst of one, someone told me that a friend of a friend had a chest examination, which revealed damaged lungs. “Living here is like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, you know,” she said.

I had my doubts about this oft-heard legend, but my father-in-law is a radiologist, and I requested chest X-rays when we visited Michigan5. The good news: they looked perfectly normal. The bad news: they likely would have been the same even if we actually had started smoking a pack a day 18 months ago.

Cumulative damage is the issue, and there certainly is reason to worry. At a December environmental conference in Indonesia, the Asian Development Bank released statistics showing that Beijing has the dirtiest air of major Asian cities. Without even attempting to break down the scientific measurements, there is a scale on which the World Health Organization puts the safe level at 20 and Beijing averages 142.

Seeking more information, I paid a visit to the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, where I met with Deputy Director Du Shaozhon. Just inside the doors of the building, a large flat-screen TV displays the current pollution readings for each of Beijing’s 16 districts. Even on a crisp blue day, the rating for the city as a whole was in the range of 80-100, four to five times above the WHO safe levels.

Upstairs, Mr. Du and his colleagues explained a lot of the issues facing the city’s air. I was there for hours, but everything I learned boiled down to: “we’ve come a long way but we have a long way to go.” While they have made significant advances in reducing the amount of coal being burned and phasing out older, incredibly polluting cars and factories, there is more of everything, in an economy growing at some 10% a year. Most crucially, Beijing adds 1,000 cars a day.

Wanting to make sure that Mr. Du wasn’t spinning me too hard, I contacted a foreign expert on Beijing pollution, who asked not to be named. I was braced for the worst. She agreed that the situation had improved but was still quite bad and while not exactly reassuring, didn’t really sound any new alarm bells. “When it looks really bad outside,” she said. “It’s really bad.”

And what about the pack-of-cigarettes thing? If it’s possible to hear someone roll their eyes I did so when I asked this question.

“That’s a persistent urban legend which started in New York in the 60s and keeps moving around,” she said. “Ambient air pollution is not good for you but it can’t compare to cigarette smoking, where you are directly injecting the bad stuff into your lungs.”

She also made the point that air pollution here is no worse than it was in the U.S. or Europe 30 to 40 years ago. “Air pollution is a real problem here and I don’t want to minimize it. I just think it’s a disproportionate expat concern compared to all the other risks they take every day.”

She was talking primarily about driving. That is certainly a good point, but it didn’t make me feel any better. We don’t drive as often we breathe, but we do so often. Another point that she and others I spoke to made was that our privileged lifestyle shields us from most of the worst effects of the pollution. We aren’t doing manual labor outside or living and working in street-level dwellings or poorly ventilated homes heated by wood-burning stoves. But we are living here and I do worry about what it means for the kids.

To that end, I contacted their pediatrician, Dr. Alan Mease of Beijing United Hospital. Our conversation left me feeling marginally optimistic, or at least not horribly pessimistic.

I noted that our kids have actually been unusually healthy since we arrived here, and said I was thankful that they didn’t have any asthmatic conditions. Those that do must really struggle. “Some do worse and some do better,” he said.

Did you say some do better?

“Yes,” he said. “It’s very dry here and that is beneficial to people with certain respiratory problems.”

But overall, all this pollution can’t be good for kids, right?

“There have been a lot of studies about pediatric response to air pollution and they suggest that are some negative effects that can only be measured after a period of 10 to 15 years ,” Dr. Mease said. “The real question is long-term. We just don’t know what the effects will be when these kids are 70 or 80.”

That is a scary thought, but I reserve most of my worry for the Chinese who will live and die here. Most of them don’t have an out. Our stay will be relatively brief. In a few years we’ll be gone. Back to the nice, clean country air of metro New York.

* * *

Readers Respond

Write to me and I’ll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don’t want your letter published. Below are selected, edited responses to my previous Expat Life column, about the perils of transpacific travel with children.
* * *

You ask pity for yourself while knowingly subjecting fellow, fare-paying passengers to hours of torture from your children.

To avoid future travel travails…stay home.

–C Jon Johnson

With all due respect, I don’t think I asked for pity and my kids are actually quite well-behaved. For the most part, we are the only ones who have to deal with them. They don’t scream, tantrum or do anything else particularly disruptive.

The gentleman next to my son did have it a bit rough this last flight but that was just a few moments out of a 14-hour flight. Furthermore, there were some empty seats on the plane and both the flight attendant and I offered to help him move at the start of the flight and he declined, for God knows what reason.
* * *

I laughed out loud at the image of you unscrewing your head and storing it in the luggage compartment. Having made that flight last summer I understand the sentiment. I did not have kids with me but will forever be more patient when those around me are screaming into my ear.

–Iris Berdrow
* * *

I lived in HK/Beijing for 2+ years and miss it still. I’m unmarried and childless, and I confess that I sat through many, many 17-hour flights silently raging at wailing/kicking/crying fellow passengers – typically (but not always!) children. After watching my sister/brother-in-law navigate young parenthood and reading pieces like your column, though, I’ve gained a real appreciation for both the in-flight battles of parents and the availability (for me) of melatonin and earplugs. I promise that next time I fly to Asia, I’ll plug in and pass out. Until I have kids, anyway.

–Katherine Liu
* * *

We lived in Asia for 13 years. To prepare for our home leaves (every two years lasting about a month) I found small toys, books and games for our two children, wrapped them as gifts and whenever a melt-down occurred, I’d fish out another “Trip Surprise”. The quantities of Surprises diminished and the outlays increased as the children grew older. They were great travelers. I always calculated that the first week Stateside was for them to adjust to the time change; the second week for me. That’s just the way it is.

–Helen Hughes

The trip surprises are a good idea. We did that initially but have ceased and I’m not sure why. We are going home more than you did, twice a year at this point.

Our kids are also great travelers for the most part.
* * *

I have two words for you: “Business Class.” I have done two foreign assignments, Mumbai (18 mths) and Singapore (2 years) and commuted between NY and LA for over two years every week. J class or the upgrade to first was the only way, even Air India miraculously becomes enjoyable in J, Cathay and Singapore, well I am sure you have experienced it.


I have never been on Cathay or Singapore Airlines but hope to be before too long. The front of the plane is simply not in the cards at this time. And talk about my kids annoying fellow passengers!

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