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Shanghai shut down by toxic cloud

Marketplace's Rob Schmitz sporting his 3M 6200 series air filtration mask on the streets of Shanghai.

Aircraft are barely visible through thick smog on the tarmac of Hongqiao airport in Shanghai as severe pollution blankets the city on December 6, 2013. The cities most harmful PM2.5 density soared to 468 micrograms per cubic metre by midnight more than 10 times the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization state media said. 

In the last few days, Shanghai has experienced its worst air pollution on record. A toxic cloud over the city has reduced visibility so much that flights have been canceled, city vehicles have been ordered off the roads, and schools have cancelled all outdoor activities as people stay indoors, hunkering down around their air filters.

News like this has been common place in northern China for years, where in cities like Beijing and Harbin, the media has dubbed crippling smog the "airpocalypse." But Shanghai has typically been thought of as having relatively cleaner air quality, says Marketplace China bureau chief Rob Schmitz, who lives in Shanghai with his wife and children.

The level of what's called PM2.5 -- or particulate matter small enough to enter your bloodstream -- was 25 times higher than what the World Health Organization considers unsafe on Friday, and it's pretty close to that level today.

Schmitz says the poor air quality lead his wife and him to purchase expensive air filters for their homes, and that while it has always been common for expats living in China to take precautions when it comes to air quality, only recently have Chinese nations caught on.

"A couple years ago, my wife and I made a tough decision to spend a big chunk of cash on hospital-grade air filters for our home. We put one in each of our sons' rooms and one in our room when we sleep. So on Friday, when we had a horrible air day, and today, which wasn't much better, I turned the filters on high and kept my 5-year-old home from school. He stayed inside all day. When I finally did venture outside, I noticed a surprising number of people here in Shanghai wearing the latest industrial air filtration masks. So the interesting thing here is that unlike a few years ago when many Chinese people that I knew would label the smog fog and not worry about it, it's clear that now most people know that this is not just fog, and they're taking precautions to protect themselves."

While the people are the ones primarily suffering under the dirty cloud engulfing Shanghai, Schmitz says the news could not have come at a worse moment for the Chinese government, who are trying to rebrand Shanghai as a global financial capital. 

"It's not great timing, because the government has been wrapped up in promoting a new free trade zone here in Shanghai that they hope will attract all sorts of foreign business and investment," Schmitz says. "You know, China wants to make Shanghai the financial center of the world that would rival New York City, but it's becoming harder to make a case for that and for a free trade zone itself, when the people in the city aren't even free to breathe clean air on most days, you know, living in China has become very bad for your health."

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

Aircraft are barely visible through thick smog on the tarmac of Hongqiao airport in Shanghai as severe pollution blankets the city on December 6, 2013. The cities most harmful PM2.5 density soared to 468 micrograms per cubic metre by midnight more than 10 times the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization state media said. 

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