Imprisoned by the air. On the fear and anxieties of life in Beijing.

beijing air pollution
CC BY 2.0 大杨 via Flickr

Edward Wong is a correspondent in China for The New York Times and has written an unsettling piece on the anxieties, guilt and concern that he and his wife, Tini, feel while raising their nine month old daughter in Beijing:

Every morning, when I roll out of bed, I check an app on my cellphone that tells me the air quality index as measured by the United States Embassy, whose monitoring device is near my home. I want to see whether I need to turn on the purifiers and whether my wife and I can take our daughter outside.

Most days, she ends up housebound. Statistics released Wednesday by the Ministry of Environmental Protection revealed that air quality in Beijing was deemed unsafe for more than 60 percent of the days in the first half of 2013. The national average was also dismal: it failed to meet the safety standard in nearly half the days of the same six-month period.

The smog isn't just unpleasant. It can literally kill you, according to new research:

This spring, new data released from the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study, first published in The Lancet, revealed that China’s outdoor pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010, or 40 percent of the worldwide total. Another study, published by a prominent American science journal in July, found that northern Chinese lived five fewer years on average than their southern counterparts because of the widespread use of coal in the north.

Cancer rates are surging in China, and even the state news media are examining the relation between that and air pollution. Meanwhile, studies both in and outside of China have shown that children with prenatal exposure to high levels of air pollutants exhibit signs of slower mental development and of behavior disorders. Research from Los Angeles shows that children in polluted environments are also at risk for permanent lung damage.

Read the rest. Wong goes on to describe the fear and uncertainty he feels when trying to find fresh food, which are sometimes grown in soils contaminated with heavy metals. He explains the trend of travelers smuggling huge amounts of milk powder into the country for parents concerned about toxic milk.

Can you imagine living like this in the second largest economy in the world? People like the Wong's are fortunate to be able to afford such luxuries as imported food and high tech air filters and masks. And there's no doubt that most people live in much worse conditions both in China and around the world. But this is an useful example of the high costs of an under regulated economy.

People have marveled at the rate of economic growth and looked enviously at the scale of development that has taken place in China, but look at the costs to the human populations that are injured as a result.

When people complain about environmental and business regulations or call for the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency, this is what you would end up with.

And when people complain that there is a "War on Coal", it is worth remembering just how deadly burning that coal has been shown to be. This is not sustainable. This is not the future we want. We can and must do better.

Tags: Air Pollution | Air Quality | Cancer | Carbon Dioxide | Carbon Emissions | China | Coal