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Pollution weighs heavily on China

Chinese worry about how air pollution affects their lives and health. Here, airplanes queue to take off while shouded in smog at Beijing International Airport on December 5, 2011. Beijing authorities canceled hundreds of flights and shut highways as thick smog descended on the Chinese capital on December 4 and 5, reducing visibility at one of the world's busiest airports.

Kai Ryssdal: When I was living in Beijing, back in the mid-'90s, I'd go out for a long bike ride on a Saturday and I'd come back hacking and coughing like I was a two-pack-a-day smoker. But bad as the air was back then, it's nothing compared to what's been happening lately. Smog so thick hundreds of planes were grounded at the Beijing Airport last week.

We sent Marketplace's Rob Schmitz from Shanghai up to Beijing a couple of days ago to look around. Hey Rob.

Rob Schmitz: Hey Kai.

Ryssdal: Hey, so what are they telling you on the streets? It must be a mess.

Schmitz: Yeah, I mean, Beijing is sort of infamous for these sandstorms and bouts of severe pollution. So people here are sort of used to all this but there seems to be this growing sense of frustration from people who live here. Years ago, I think people were more tolerant of this pollution because they new it was a byproduct of development. Well now, many here in Beijing have made their money. They're getting comfy and the pollution is still here. And it impacts your health and the health of your children.

So, I spoke a young man named Zhang Yue yesterday. He was outside a pharmacy that was doing very good business selling air filter face masks. He told me Beijing pollution has had a huge impact on how he lives.

Zhang Yue: Speaking in Chinese

Ryssdal: Give us the translation. What is he saying?

Schmitz: So you know how in America we choose a house based on the school district or how safe the area is, things like that?

Ryssdal: Yeah.

Schmitz: Well Zhang just bought a new home. And he's telling me the biggest factor behind his purchase was air quality. He says he picked the least polluted part of the city to buy an apartment. So we have the biggest decision of this guys life being determined by air pollution.

Ryssdal: That's crazy. What is the government doing, if anything?

Schmitz: Well, throughout last week officials insisted on labeling the pollution "bad weather." They called it fog. They refused to call it smog.

Ryssdal: Nobody really believes that though, right? I mean come on.

Schmitz: No, and that's why a lot people are just angry. They're sick of being lied to like this by a government that's supposed to be taking care of them. People who are really concerned with this are following a Twitter feed from the U.S. embassy in Beijing. The U.S. embassy has been monitoring the air from a machine on its roof. It spits out hourly air quality readings and posts them on Twitter. And all last week, the reading were categorized as either very unhealthy or hazardous. On one day last week, the pollution was so bad that it went beyond what the machine could even read. So, you know, it was pretty clear: don't go outside.

Ryssdal: Are people not going to work? What's the economic impact?

Schmitz: Last week a lot of the roads were closed. Folks, I think, had a hard time getting stuff to market and going to work. But I think what's more important here is that there has been a 60 percent increase in lung cancer in the past decade. So that's going to have a tremendous toll on China's health care system. The World Bank figures China loses $100 billion a year from pollution -- that's 6 percent of China's GDP. [Coughing] Excuse me. I'm actually coughing right now. Just last week, hundreds of flight were cancelled in and out of Beijing because the pilots couldn't see through all this smog. China's economy is definitely taking a hit because of this.

Ryssdal: Let's pick up on that coughing spell you just had. You don't go outside and run, do you?

Schmitz: Well, you know, I do. I like to run. I've got asthma and so I'm pretty sensitive about how bad the air is -- especially after a run. I've got a three-year-old son and he's showing early signs of asthma. Earlier this year, my wife and I spent $6,000 on the best air filters that we can find. That was a big investment for us. I mean, that was more than I spent on my last car back in the States. You know, I've got another son on the way so I thought this was really important. But I'm lucky. Most Chinese people can't afford air filters like that.

Ryssdal: Rob Schmitz, usually in Shanghai, today in Beijing, giving us our weather forecast. Rob, thanks a lot.

Schmitz: Thanks Kai.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.
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It should be noted that the 60% increase in lung cancer within the past decade can be attributed in part to greater detection. Also, with the large smoking population in China, we cannot blame it all to "smog" and air pollution.

You're correct about China having greater detection capability. However, researchers found that the percentage of people in Beijing who smoke has remained the same over the ten-year period that was studied.

Disappointed because:

a. You guys mocked the refusal of the Chinese government to refer to it as 'smog' without noting that we do the same thing. I lived in Atlanta, and we had a lot of "hazy" days; you rarely heard anyone down there refer to it as smog. People were quite taken aback, even offended, when I used the term down there.

b. You guys failed to even mention the similar Great Fog of 1952 that hit London.

The "Great [Smog] Fog of 1952: In early December of 1952, a cold fog descended upon London. Because of the cold, Londoners began to burn more coal than usual. At the same time, the final conversion of London's electric trams to diesel buses was completed. The resulting air pollution was trapped by the heavy layer of cold air, and the concentration of pollutants built up dramatically. The smog was so thick that it would sometimes make driving impossible. It entered indoors easily, and concerts and screenings of films were cancelled as the audience could not see the stage or screen.

Since London was known for its fog, there was no great panic at the time. In the weeks that followed, the medical services compiled statistics and found that the fog had killed 4,000 people-most of whom were very young or elderly, or had pre-existing respiratory problems. Another 8,000 died in the weeks and months that followed.
These shocking revelations led to a rethinking of air pollution. The disaster demonstrated to people around the world that it was a real and deadly problem. New regulations were put in place restricting the use of dirty fuels in industry and banning black smoke. These included the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and of 1968, and the City of London (Various Powers) Act of 1954.

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