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China’s city dwellers struggle to cope with air pollution

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The United States Energy Information Agency this week reported some disturbing news: China now burns almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined. That’s part of the reason there is now a carcinogenic cloud over Eastern China that’s three times the size of California. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao appeared on state television yesterday calling for energy conservation measures.

Chinese citizens are concerned. For the past year, 61-year-old Shanghai resident Qiu Yiping has introduced a new element into her morning routine.

“I turn the television on to check the air quality index,” she says. “Today the air was really bad. I already knew that because I woke up with an itchy throat. So I put my mask on.”

Qiu wears a cloth mask that covers half her face. Wearing these masks is a common but useless practice. The air today over much of Eastern China is high in the tiniest of particulate matter which can enter your bloodstream. Only a hermetically sealed mask with a special filter can help. Qiu doesn’t know where to get that kind of mask.

She says the government needs to do a better job at protecting the public.

“They say they’re tackling pollution, but they’re not doing enough. They have to do more,” says Qiu. “This involves the health and safety of all of us.”

The World Bank estimates the economic cost of China’s pollution — from health care costs to flight cancellations to lost work — is nearly half a trillion dollars.

Thirty-year-old Liu Xin works for a construction company. He says the government has done little to address air pollution, not even giving people basic information about how to protect themselves.

“My friends and I are constantly checking the air quality index online, but honestly, we’re clueless about what preventative measures we can take because the government isn’t educating us about it,” he says.

Case in point: Zhang Qinzhu, a woman in her 60s, outlines what she does to protect herself against the smog.

“When it’s this bad,” Zhang tells me, “I open up my windows to let in some fresh air.”

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