The consequences of smog

Over the past two weeks Beijing has experienced some pretty awful smog – days on end of hazardous levels – past the 300 mark and up to 475 at its peak. It cleared up for a few days but yesterday was back at “very unhealthy” levels, not far off hazardous, and today is only marginally better.

While the highest levels were only two-thirds as high as the airpocalypse day back in January 2013 (475 vs 775), that’s still 20 times the WHO safe level. That surprised me – the charts all list anything under 50 as healthy, but turns out the WHO guidelines recommend no more than 25 for constant exposure. Yeah…. Beijing doesn’t get a whole lot of that. There are rarely more than 2 days a month averaging under 50.

It’s strange to be here in Cambodia while reading about the smog in Beijing – rather than being there in it. This is the most distant I’ve felt since leaving. I’ve been gone nearly 7 weeks which makes it easily the longest I’ve been outside China since 2007. But after ten years living in the thick air of Beijing, I still remember not only what smog looks like, but what it FEELS like. There are physical consequences to breathing smog (which I suspect has affected my health more than I care to know), but there is also an emotional impact to living in a darkened world.

During my last year in China, I took a series of photos from my living room window just so I could compare the appearance according to the pollution level. I only took photos between 11am-1pm on days without cloud, to try to keep the photos comparable. Here is a comparison image I made with AQI of approximate 45 (good), 160 (unhealthy), 280 (very unhealthy), 450, and 550 (both hazardous and beyond the index).

Photos from my living room on days of varying AQI levels.

Photos from my living room on days of varying AQI levels.

Pretty disturbing, I think.

On a clear day, the view from my living room window stretched all the way to the mountains in the west of the city. I would stand by the window at sunset on a rare clear day enthralled by the beauty of the sun dipping below the mountains and painting the sky in a riot of colour as it went. But with even a lowly “unhealthy” day the horizon disappears.

After a few years in Beijing one becomes accustomed to this lack of horizon. Having the horizon fade away behind a haze of smog is actually the norm, rather than the exception. On clear days (almost EVERY clear day) I would find myself amazed at how far I could see – and a little confused! I often was surprised that such-and-such building was visible, or in a straight line from here, or how long the street was – a street I travelled every day but down which I could rarely see so far.

Smog makes one’s vision smaller – there is literally less to see. It’s like being cocooned in a small bubble. Then a smaller one. And smaller. By the hazardous days there is so little to see, and all of it a little blurry. With all that junk in the air there is a lot between me and whatever I’m looking at. It’s like losing vision, or taking off one’s glasses. It can make one feel disconnected, disjointed.

Also, do you see how the only photo with any substantive colour is the first one, on the “good” day? That’s because smog acts as a filter that saps colour. Everything is coated in grey. The lack of sunshine, the lack of colour – it literally makes the world grey, and that in turn makes the world FEEL grey. 

It’s amazing how smog affects your mood. I remember well opening curtains in the morning, seeing the yellow sun of a clear day – and feeling an instant lift of my spirits. I also remember days where I woke feeling refreshed and energised and ready to start the day, only to look out upon a smog cocoon and feel that enthusiasm slowly fall under the weight of grey.

One of the best things here is that when I’m exhausted or stressed or running late, just walking outside into sunshine makes me happy and more relaxed. Even on rainy days here the air is clean and fresh. Other expats might complain (or make jokes) about the dirt and dust but to me this city is clean and beautiful. Others may abhor the fierce sun on those really hot days, but I revel in it.

I do not take clean air, yellow sun, blue skies, or puffy clouds for granted. A decade of smog has given me quite an appreciation for these things.

Update: after returning to Beijing I wrote a companion piece, on Blue Sky Days.


6 thoughts on “The consequences of smog

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