A young couple, Ms. Lu and Mr. Li, hold hands during a walk through Beijing’s Olympic Park. “I’m pretty sad about this. It’s worse and worse”, explains Li. “I think the pollution is bad for our health. The PM2.5 damages our lungs [but] we don’t have any choice”, he laments. “I left China two and half years ago. Then it wasn’t so bad. I’ve been abroad. I know what’s good [air] and what’s bad. Young people care more than old people. We have more information. We know how bad it is.” PM2.5 reading – 218 – Very Unhealthy
Liu (33), a sharply-dressed office worker in central Beijing. “I started to use the mask 3 years ago. Of course I am worried about the pollution. I bought them for everyone in my family and forced them to wear it.” PM2.5 reading – 170 – Unhealthy
Ms. Zeng (21), a student, burns incense while making wishes at a shrine inside Beijing’s Lama Temple. “I think the weather is bad. I started using the mask about one year ago because of the pollution.” PM2.5 reading – 261 – Very Unhealthy
Qi (name changed), a 13-year old middle school student, wears an advanced air filtration mask in central Beijing. “I’m more concerned about the pollution than my parents. Since 2012, my parents told me to stay inside more. I asked my parents to buy this for me. My classmates think I’m strange.” PM2.5 reading – 188 – Unhealthy
A tourist (name withheld) from Heilongjiang province, in north-west China, visits the Olympic green in central Beijing. “I knew from TV that the air quality is bad in Beijing, so I bought it before I came here”, she says. ” In Heilongjiang, the air is better than here but in the [city] downtown area it’s similar”. PM2.5 reading – 218 – Very Unhealthy
A young girl pauses for a moment while riding her bike through Beijing’s Ditan Park. PM2.5 reading – 261 – Very Unhealthy
A young boy stands with his mother at a bus stop in the west of Beijing. As well as the elderly, children are particularly susceptible to the adverse health effects of air pollution.Many young children can now be seen on the streets of Beijing wearing masks, in an effort by their families to protect them. PM2.5 reading – 204 – Very Unhealthy
Mr. Liu (56) and Mrs. Wang (54), a married couple in Beijing, sit on a bench in the capital’s Ditan Park. Their unique pollution masks are designed to filter air breathed through the nose, with exhalation then from the mouth. They are one of the new types of masks now appearing as alternatives to the traditional face mask. “We started using these one month ago”, explains Mr. Liu. “This one is more comfortable. It filters out 95% of the pollution.” PM2.5 reading – 367 – Hazardous
Ms. Liu (30) pauses during a walk through one of Beijing’s traditional hutong neighbourhoods. “Of course I worry about the pollution”, she says. “I don’t have a good stomach or throat, so I pay attention to the pollution. I think this issues should of been addressed year ago.” PM2.5 reading – 107 – Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups
In Beijing’s TianTan Park, a woman plays with a Jianzi, a traditional Chinese game which requires the participants to keep it in the air by kicking. PM2.5 reading – 89 – Moderate
An elderly man performs to Tai Chi in Beijing’s TianTan Park. The elderly and young are some of the most susceptible to the effects of air pollution, however this does not deter hundreds of the city’s elderly residents who go to the parks everyday to socialise and exercise, no matter what the air quality. PM2.5 reading – 89 – Moderate
Ms. Pan (left) and Ms. Zhu (right) are co-workers in an Environmental Landscape Design company in Beijing. “The weather is too bad”‘ explains Ms. Pan. “It’s really uncomfortable. I can already feel the cough and headaches. In my professional area, we discuss [this issue] a lot. The air is getting worse and worse.” PM2.5 reading – 196 – Unhealthy
Students Liu (21), Xu (22) and Han (21) stand near the Olympic Swimming Center during a visit to Beijing from southern China. “We never wore a mask before. After we arrived in Beijing we bought it”, explains Liu. “The air quality is not good”, continues Xu. “More and more people pay attention to this. We should pay more attention to this problem. Every person has to start the change.” PM2.5 reading – 218 – Very Unhealthy
Mrs. Huang (40), a life long Beijing resident. “About 4-5 years ago I started using masks. I don’t feel comfortable in my lungs.”, she explains. “Of course there’s been a big change in the air. Since the 1980’s there were sandstorms. Then it got better. Around 2000, industry got more and more and the air got bad.” PM2.5 reading – 188 – Unhealthy
A couple, Ms. Hu (27) and Mr. Teng (27), stand underneath a propaganda poster depicting an idyllic Beijing life, in the city’s Xidan shopping district. PM2.5 reading – 102 – Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups
Ren (27), a student and Beijing resident, stands in the cities modern CBD area. “I started using the mask last year when the pollution got bad. I didn’t pay much attention before that”, he explains. “I don’t like wearing it but I have to. I watched the [Chai Jing] documentary many times. I shared it with everyone. Now, I pay attention to our behaviour. The documentary inspired me. The future? It’s hard to get the environment back. I’m thinking about emigrating.” PM2.5 reading – 184 – Unhealthy
Ms. Wang (37), an office worker in Beijing, wears a distinctive blue mask that she uses for skiing and doubles in purpose to protect her from air pollution. PM2.5 reading – 170 – Unhealthy
Li (23), a sales worker from Hebei Province stands on the platform in Beijing’s subway system. Many residents now not only wear the masks outdoors but also in indoor public spaces and on public transportation. “The pollution is too much. I have worn [the mask] since 2013. My home city, Shijiazhuang, is more polluted!” PM2.5 reading – 191 – Unhealthy
Li, a 17-year old beautician from Shandong province, stands in Beijing’s Xidan shopping district. “I study here in Beijing. The air is bad”‘ she says. “Two years ago I started wearing [the mask]. It helps protect my skin. There are too many people here in China which has ruined the environment.” PM2.5 reading – 102 – Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups
Xue (29), an engineer visiting Beijing’s Lama Temple. “Of course it’s not comfortable but we have to put it [the mask] on. I wore it earlier than most. I started about 4 years ago. I cough when I smell the dust.” PM2.5 reading – 200 – Unhealthy
An elderly man in a wheelchair watches a fellow Beijinger draw Chinese characters with water into the dusty pavement. PM2.5 reading – 367 – Hazardous
Drolmaj, an editor with a local publishing company, during her morning walk in central Beijing. “The pollution makes me sad. I feel sad to live here. When I first came here there was blue sky and white clouds. It’s a big problem here.” PM2.5 reading – 365 – Hazardous
Mrs. Liu sits with her daughter in a small garden outside of her office in the west of Beijing. “I want to protect my daughter. She’s young. She isn’t able to protect herself”, she explains as to why she makes her daughter wear a mask. “I’m sure the PM2.5 is bad for people’s health. I’m thinking of sending her overseas. I think it will take a long time to clear the air. I don’t want my daughter to have to live with this situation.” PM2.5 reading – 204 – Very Unhealthy
Miss Song (30), from Dongbei Province, stands near an ornate gate in Beijing’s Ditan Park. “It’s very dirty here. I started using the mask last year. From the year before last, China started to get this pollution. Pollution was a very new word for me. At that time, we started to know more about “2.5”. My family don’t wear masks. I suggested they use them but they didn’t do it.” – PM2.5 reading – 365 – Hazardous
Mrs. Zhang (62), a retiree in Beijing, stands near a wall in the capital’s Ditan Park. “Last year I bought a professional mask because I had a bad throat. The pollution made it worse. I think they are a bit strange looking. These past two years I’ve been wearing them. During the polluted days I definitely wear them. During the spring festival the pollution was really bad. I’m really scared of the pollution.” PM2.5 reading – 365 – Hazardous
Zhao (25), an office worker, stands on a bridge above a busy highway in the centre of Beijing. PM2.5 reading – 223 – Very Unhealthy
Beijing, China – March, 2015
“I’m really scared of the pollution”, says Mrs. Zhang, a 62-year old retiree who has just finished her morning exercises in Beijing’s Ditan park. Like many other of the city’s elderly residents, she heads out each morning to take part in communal exercises that range from dancing and singing, to kung fu.
On this warm spring morning in mid-March, a familiar haze sits in they air however, keeping the residents of Beijing snugly enveloped underneath its cover. Beijingers have become acutely aware of what this dystopian phenomenon is.
A quick check via one of the numerous online apps reveals the air pollution level is high again. This morning its at 356. “Hazardous”’ according to the US Embassy’s Air Quality Index (AQI) monitor. “Serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; serious risk of respiratory effects in general population”, it advises. “Everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion.”
“Last year I bought a professional mask because I had a bad throat. The pollution made it worse”, Mrs. Zhang continues, speaking loudly to break through the fabric that presses close to her mouth.
She is one of many Beijingers that are taking self-protection into their own hands, as part of of a new public trend that is seeing more and more people using the air pollution mask.
A quick walk down most streets in Beijing, from the old hutong alleyways to the modern business districts, will reveal all types and ages of people sporting a variety of different shaped and coloured masks.
Underneath the gleaming white and silver skyscrapers of the Guomao central business district area, Ren, a student and lifelong Beijing resident, struggles to make himself heard through his specialist 3M pollution mask. “I started using the mask last year when the pollution got bad. I didn’t pay much attention before that”, he explains. “I don’t like wearing it but I have to.”
Air pollution has been back in the news recently as a new documentary, produced by Chinese journalist Chai Jing, revealed more details about the social, health and environmental impacts on Chinese citizens. Its phenomenal success online, having been watched over 100 million times, has helped increase awareness of the problem and has partly influenced the new personal health trend of the air pollution mask, as individual Chinese citizens try to protect themselves.
“I watched the documentary many times”, continues Ren. “I shared it with everyone. Now, I pay attention to our behaviour. The documentary inspired me. The future? It’s hard to get the environment back. I’m thinking about emigrating.”
From the old to the young, all ages can now be found sporting masks of various shapes, sizes and colours.
Most striking however is the sight of young children whose parents and families are trying to protect their young lungs from the harmful air. “I want to protect my daughter. She’s young. She isn’t able to protect herself”, explains Mrs. Liu, an office worker in the west of Beijing. “I’m sure the PM2.5 is bad for people’s health. I’m thinking of sending her overseas. I think it will take a long time to clear the air. I don’t want my daughter to have to live with this situation.”
On Saturday 28th March, Beijing was hit by the first sandstorm of the year which combined with air pollution to send particulate matter levels to record highs. A once common phenomenon in the capital, dust storms originating in the deserts of north and north-west China continue to plague the capital during the spring months. Desertification in China is a little talked about issue but continues to fuel sand and dust storms, occasionally reminding urbanites of the severe environmental challenges facing the north of the country, just on the capital’s doorstep.
News this month announced the closure of Beijing’s last coal-fired power station, along with the introduction of a new pollution classification system that will see factories closed and construction sites shut down if pollution levels rise above the level of 200, the mark at which the air is deemed “heavily polluted”. These are small but hopeful steps that are moving in the right direction to clean up the city’s notoriously bad air.
For the time being however, Beijing’s residents are taking it upon themselves to protect themselves from the day to day challenges of living under some of the world’s most polluted skies.