Don't Panic

The image above shows the view from the back of our apartment ten minutes ago. Usually you can see skyscrapers too. Presumably they’re still there and you just can’t see them through the ‘fog’. Except it’s not fog, or mist or cloud. It’s airborne poison. For the last three days, Shanghai has been experiencing the worst air pollution on record. Today the Air Quality in Shanghai reached the top of the scale and just kept on going.

A few months ago, I jovially penned a little post about the air quality bemoaning the fact that the Air Quality Index (AQI) in Shanghai frequently reached 150 but thankful that it didn’t go to 200 too often. I posted this guide:


I’ve always been conscious that pollution is an issue in Shanghai, especially for children. I generally don’t let Little A play outside when it gets over 150. At 200, I definitely keep him indoors. I’ve never seen it go over 220 before this week. As of the last hour, it’s just hit 509 - that’s quite literally off the scale. My poor little air monitoring app is so bewildered by the fact that the reading is ‘beyond index’ that it is telling me the air quality is ‘good’ (with a slightly insane looking smiley face beside it).


But the air isn’t good - it’s tastes of the inside of an exhaust pipe and it burns when you breathe. I’ve never seen anything like it (but then again, I don’t live in Beijing where this is, sadly, an all too common experience). It’s hard to get a sense of what severe pollution is like if you’ve never experienced it but I can give you some idea of the scale of this particular crisis event.

I had a look at some air quality readings from around the world this morning:
New York 11
Paris 49
Singapore 20
Beijing 185
Shanghai 509

I would have tried to get more readings for more heavily populated cities like Delhi and Rio de Janeiro which are likely to have higher readings (but not this high) but couldn’t find them on the internet.

There’s not a lot we can do except hope for a strong gust of wind to blow it into someone else’s airspace. We have two air purifiers running in the apartment at the moment but we need at least three more to make sure the whole apartment is covered. We also have filtered masks which I bought last week. When I was putting in the order, Mr Oh said he didn’t want me to buy him one. I said I’d just buy one so that we have it and he told me not to bother because he wouldn’t wear it. Stupidly, I listened to him. It was a slightly sheepish husband who went off to work this morning in a black mask dotted with pink hearts that he had to borrow from his wife. Little A refuses to wear his and screams whenever it’s produced. He’s not allowed to leave the apartment. He’s lucky I don’t chain him to the air purifier.

The sad thing is that most Chinese people don’t have air purifiers. Most, in fact, don’t even realise the extent of the danger. When discussing the pollution with my Chinese teacher - who is generally an intelligent and worldly lady - she told me that air pollution is a real problem for foreigners because we’re not used to it. My Danish classmate and I were stunned into silence. We wanted to object and tell her that just because you’re used to air pollution doesn’t mean it’s not just as damaging. We wanted to be righteous and right (well, I did anyway). But our teacher quietly said - this is where Chinese people live, we can’t go anywhere. Like many Chinese, she doesn’t want to hear about the dangers of air pollution because she can’t do anything about it. She can’t move. She can’t keep her child in a purified room all day - local schools don’t have air purifiers and, at about €2,000 per unit, not many Chinese homes can afford them. Some Chinese people wear masks but most of the masks don’t have filters and therefore don’t provide any protection.

Pollution is played down in the media. It’s not ignored so much as mentioned in passing - in a factual sort of way e.g. “today the pollution is bad, maybe you shouldn’t jog”. There’s probably no point in sending 1.35 billion people into a blind panic unless you’re also coming to the table with a solution. It reminds me of the SARS outbreak in 2002. Until the Chinese media tells you to freak out, you don’t freak out, but once they give you that green light, you freak out big style.

What’s the point in scaring people - even when the threat is real? They haven’t even closed the schools though, I can’t understand that but, then again, if the kids aren’t in school, the parents often can’t go to work and that creates a whole other set of problems. They’re telling children and the elderly to stay indoors where possible but why would the air quality inside be better that outside? You can’t protect the indoors from the outdoors for more than a few days. I see Chinese children on the street (or at least I did when I was still venturing outside) and they’re playing in shop fronts out in the open air - there’s no where else for them to go. The scary thing is that we don’t really know yet how the air pollution will affect them in decades to come, those children who are breathing in toxic air continuously throughout the day, throughout their childhoods.

In the past, environmentalism for me has always been something vague and intangible. A little bit of recycling, some biodegradable washing powder, a touch of pontificating. And bitching about the EU - we all love bitching about the EU - with their annoying regulations and directives. But yesterday evening, when I realized that I don’t know when Little A will next step outdoors, when I could see pollution haze under the lights in the kitchen after we moved the air purifiers into the bedroom, when I couldn’t stand in the air outside our back door for more than ten seconds without choking - then the real meaning of environmentalism hit me. It’s not some airy fairy aspirational sound biting best left to hippies, people who do yoga and Eurobores. Those are the people who are trying to beat back the deluge before it drowns us (maybe not the people who do yoga - some of them just want flexible hamstrings).

This is my reality (from the relative safety of my purified room). This is China’s reality. But imagine if it were a sign of things to come - for all of us.


A Good Air Day

Pasted Graphic

Huzzah! It’s a good air day (see smiley face above)! I used to wake up, pick up my phone and check my email, my Facebook and the Irish Times before I did anything. Now I wake up and check the Shanghai Air Quality, my email and that’s about it. I still check Facebook but not until I’ve turned on the VPN which I use to vault the great China firewall. Any interest I had in Irish news (which was minimal if we’re being honest) has been superseded by interest in the toxicity of the air I’m breathing. Today, thankfully it’s not so toxic (although at 50, it’s on the border of being not that great).


The nice people at the American Consulate in Shanghai provide the data. They have a hi-tech wand or something that analyses his kind of thing. They probably have an attaché whose job it is to measure the air quality. I imagine he’s not too popular with the Chinese - they like to provide their own stats on the level of pollution. They have a website dedicated to providing accurate and timely data on the pollution levels around China (http://datacenter.mep.gov.cn/report/air_daily/air_dairy_en.jsp). I wonder, though, why I’ve never heard of any of the towns for which they provide data - it seems that they’ve located their pollution collection wands on the tops of mountains, hundreds of miles from the nearest metropolis. It is reassuring, however, to note that if I should even visit Sanmenxia in Hunan Province, the air quality is likely to range between ‘good’ and ‘very good’. The American Consulate in Shanghai is located about 500m from our apartment so I reckon their wand is of more use to me than any of the randomly placed Chinese ones.

It is also interesting to note the existence of what could be described as ‘pollution spin’. Zigong in Sichuan Province has, according to the Chinese website, an AQI of 147 today. This, the website tells us, is ‘slight polluted’. If we look at the handy chart above, you can see that 147 falls in the menacing orange bracket and is classified as ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’. I think ‘slight polluted’ is more friendly.

According to the Americans, Beijing is currently experiencing at AQI of 179 (Unhealthy) which makes me happy I don’t live in Beijing because I’ve never seen their AQI drop below 100. According to the Chinese, the most polluted place in the country is the aforementioned Zigong, which is just scraping under the ‘unhealthy’ category. I wonder if the Chinese would consider repositioning their wands? I feel like they’re missing some key cities.

Despite the existence of these handy apps and websites, I don’t need either the Chinese or the Americans to tell me how polluted it is outside. You can taste it. It’s like a soup. Some days it’s a light broth, like a teaspoon of Bovrilmonoxide in a steaming vat of hot water. Other days, it’s like a muggy, cyanide stew. The air is thick with the smell and taste of it. It’s like that time Mr Oh accidentally liquidised Baby M’s silicone dummy when trying to sterilize it in boiling water. He let the water boil down and eventually the room was filled with the thick fumes of melted plastic gone airborne. That’s what it’s like on a bad air day here, like somebody is melting China’s dummy. Thankfully it’s not Mr Oh this time.

The most recent update tells me that Shanghai AQI is up to 55 now complete with sad face (see below) - so much for my good air day.


If we’re getting the American sad face at 55, I wonder what happens if the AQI reaches 300 (probably not much because the Americans will have cleared out and abandoned post at that stage). Maybe the Americans can manage their updates remotely from their tropical beach in Guam and the face will do this:


The Chinese website classifies an AQI of 55 ‘good’. I like their optimistic approach - it’s a damn sight better than waking up to sad faces every morning.