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.