On the way to school, my kids and I play a guessing game: How polluted is the air today? We use an app linked to the air pollution monitor at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and we try to guess the day's exact level on the Air Quality Index, and whether the air is dangerous.
These days, chances are that it could well be. For more than half of the past 60 days, the air pollution has hit levels hazardous to human health. Experts estimate long-term exposure to such pollution could reduce life expectancy by as much as five years. But I don't tell the kids that.
Living inside the pollution zone, those daily measurements determine how my family spends its days. Whenever the levels hit "very unhealthy," we keep the kids indoors and refuse to let them take part in outdoor activities, no matter how much whining might ensue. When to wear a pollution mask, when to stay indoors, it's all become crucial knowledge, even for our 4-year-old.
Differences In Measurement
That U.S. air pollution monitor has become central in the debate over Beijing's air quality, since it measures fine particles and thus produces different readings to China's official statistics, which measure only larger particles.
According to leaked cables, in 2009, Chinese officials claimed the air monitor's readings were causing "confusion" and undesirable "social consequences" among the Chinese public, and asked the embassy to consider limiting access to the data to American citizens.
This hasn't happened, but the existence of these divergent readings has placed pressure on the government to reform its air pollution reporting, a move that it has vowed to make in 2016.
One prime example was last Sunday, when the pollution was literally off the U.S. Embassy air monitor scale, hitting a level described as "beyond index." In contrast, according to the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection, the air pollution was "light."
For the past few days, heavy pollution has caused hundreds of flight cancellations and road closures. While Chinese officials have blamed climactic conditions for what they describe as the "heavy fog," green groups say the real reason is the hangover from China's three decades of runaway growth — emissions from coal-fired power plants, industrial emissions and vehicle exhaust fumes
China's equivalent of Twitter is awash with sarcastic comments about air quality. "Suggest the Beijing government gives everybody a face mask ... in order to stimulate domestic consumption," tweets one user. "Today in China clean air, clean water, safe foods, kind hearts and the truth have all become luxury items," tweets another.
Unhealthy Levels, Even Indoors
Given the amount of time my kids now spend indoors, I decided to get an expert to check the air inside my apartment. This, it turned out, was a decision that has entirely ruined my peace of mind.
"We do that quite a lot," admitted Chris Buckley ruefully, after measuring the indoor pollution in our apartment. The British expat runs a business selling imported air purifiers.
I had been expecting the worst, but the readings were more alarming than I had imagined in my worst moments. Inside the living room, where the kids construct dens out of sofa cushions, the level of air pollution — or, more specifically, fine particulate matter — was an estimated 208 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter. That's five times higher than the level considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, in the U.S., the level of pollution inside my living room would be "very unhealthy," verging on "hazardous."
"I guess I'm the only guy who wakes up when the air pollution is terrible and looks at the sky and thinks, 'Hmm, OK, this is not bad,'" said Buckley, who says his business is booming. "It's been good, the last year, especially the last 12 months when the air has been foul. We're doing fine."
Former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji even weighed in on the health hazards.
"If I work in your Beijing, I would shorten my life at least five years," Zhu reportedly told city officials in 1999. And researchers say that estimate is actually not so far off the mark.
The High Health Costs
Avraham Ebenstein of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem describes those seemingly throwaway words as "astoundingly close to the estimates that we observe." Ebenstein has been crunching decades of Chinese statistics to come up with one of the few studies on the long-term effects of living with high levels of pollution.
"We estimate about five to six years of foregone life expectancy over the long haul for living in Beijing relative to [China's] southern cities," he says.
Together with colleagues from Columbia University, the Brookings Institution, Peking University and Tsinghua University, Ebenstein looked at life expectancy rates north and south of China's Huai river. That's relevant because the government provides heating — mainly coal-powered — north of the river, but not south. As a result, air pollution is much worse north of the river.
The researchers used air quality readings from 91 Chinese cities from 1981 to 2000, as well as health data from China's disease surveillance system from 1991 to 2000. For cities north of the Huai river, where the pollution is worse, they found lower birth rates, as well as higher adult mortality rates for respiratory-related diseases like heart disease and lung cancer.
When asked how relevant his findings are now, given that much of the data is historical, he says, "The answer is we don't know. On the one hand, the air pollution isn't as bad now as it was before, and those people lost five years."
"But since you're going to have less of a chance of getting other kinds of illnesses" given improving standards of living in China, Ebenstein says, "if you're exposed to air pollution now, as a relative share of the health cost to you, it could still be a really big factor. It could have a really large impact of life expectancy."
Even the state-run China Daily admitted this week that the smog was a "severe hazard," quoting a health official as saying that the lung cancer rate has increased in Beijing by 60 percent during the past decade, even though the smoking rate has not increased.
For those of us living here, protecting our kids from the air they breathe is almost impossible. For a long while, our major strategy was denial, but this is no longer an option. It's clear that there is a health cost in living in such pollution. And the immediate cost to us of doing this story has been almost $3,000 in new air purifiers — an option that's out of reach for most Beijing residents.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
In Beijing, concern is growing about the veil of pollution caused by coal-fired power plants and vehicle emissions. For more than half of the last 60 days, the air pollution there has hit levels hazardous to human health. That is according to the monitoring system at the U.S. embassy. The official Chinese statistics come from measuring only large particles, widely seen as producing less reliable information. In this postcard from the Chinese capital, NPR's Louisa Lim - who has two small children - describes family life in the pollution zone.
LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: I've just got up, and the first thing I do in the mornings is I look out the window to see how polluted it is. And today, I have to say it's pretty disgusting. There's a kind of white haze, which is hanging in the air, shrouding everything with mist.
And I have an app which I normally check first thing in the morning. It's linked to the air pollution monitor at the U.S. embassy. Oh no, today is 325 on the air pollution index. That's officially hazardous to human health. This is going to be a big problem today. My six-year-old has a football match.
DANIEL FENG: I want my Cheerios.
LIM: Listen, you may not be able to go to your football today.
EVE FENG: Why then?
LIM: Look how polluted it is outside.
LIM: Listen, we'll check what the pollution level is before football. And if it's dangerous then you can't go. OK?
FENG: I have got a very super-good idea: Put your pollution mask on, mummy.
FENG: No, put it on me and I'll play with it on.
LIM: Serious, you'll play with a facemask on?
(SOUNDBITE OF A SINGING CHILD)
LIM: Now it's afternoon, and the air pollution index is over 400. So even sitting outside to watch football seems foolhardy. So the kids are playing computer games at home, instead of running around outside. All this time that they're spending inside is kind of making me wonder what it is they're breathing inside our apartment. So, I think it's time to get the experts in.
CHRIS BUCKLEY: I'm Chris, Chris Buckley. I have a business in Beijing, selling air purifiers.
LIM: So you've brought this equipment with you.
BUCKLEY: It measures the number of particles in the air at different size ranges.
LIM: Should we find out how - now I'm really scared of this figure.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BUCKLEY: OK. OK.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
BUCKLEY: So I just - so outside, I was getting 314 micrograms. And indoors, I've got 208 micrograms.
LIM: You're telling me that the level of air pollution inside is five times what the U.S. EPA would consider average?
BUCKLEY: A safe average, yes. As we speak...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BUCKLEY: ...we're both breathing air which the EPA would say was not good.
LIM: That's really scary.
BUCKLEY: Yeah, it is. Yeah, welcome to Beijing.
LIM: Well, to find out more about the long-term impact of pollution, I called Avraham Ebenstein from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Together with Chinese colleagues, he's been looking at the different life expectancy rates north and south of the Huai River. The government provides heating, mainly coal-powered heating, north of the river but not south, making the pollution much worse. I want to know what they found.
PROFESSOR AVRAHAM EBENSTEIN: It's actually kind of funny, because the former premier of China was southern resident and he was concerned about moving to the north. And he said: If I move to Beijing, I will lose five years of life expectancy, which is astoundingly close to the estimates that we observe. Our estimate is about five to six years of foregone life expectancy over the long haul, of living in Beijing, relative to southern cities.
LIM: Hold on a minute. Your research was based on data from the 1980s. I mean how relevant is that for us now?
EBENSTEIN: The answer is we don't know. On the one hand, maybe the air pollution isn't as bad now as it was before, and those people lost five years. But since you're going to have less of a chance of getting other kinds of illnesses, if you're exposed to air pollution now, as a relative share of the health cost to you, it could still be a really big factor. It could still have a really large impact of life expectancy.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SINGING CHILD)
LIM: So how to protect yourself from the very air that you breathe? We end up shuttling our kids by car, from one indoor play place to another, minimizing their time outside. Until now, our strategy has been denial, pretending it wasn't really that bad. That's no longer an option.
We don't know what living here will cost us in health terms. But the immediate cost to us of doing this story has been almost $3,000 in new air purifiers, an option that's out of reach for most Beijingers.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.
WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.