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Living with China’s ‘crazy bad’ smog

CNN Asia Business Analyst, Ramy Inocencio

Hong Kong (CNN) – I roll my eyes when people here in Hong Kong complain this
city’s air quality is bad. My reply? Try living in Beijing.

This past week we saw some of the worst smog to smother China’s capital
this year. More than 360 flights were cancelled in and out of Beijing on
Tuesday alone. Thousands of passengers around the country were stranded. And
both infants and the elderly across the region were rushed to hospitals for
breathing problems – their mouths and noses covered by oxygen masks.

It seems things haven’t changed.  From 2000 to 2006 I lived in China; four
of those years were in Beijing. And I remember very similar scenes. Looking
back on my time then – and reporting on China’s air pollution problems
today – it’s as if history continues to repeat itself.

To be sure, I have fond memories of Beijing – of my friends, of great food
and of helpful people. Of its air quality, I do not.

Memory 1: A dusting of grey, a shooting of black and the taste of metal

By the look of my hair, I had aged a few decades by the time I came back
home one particularly polluted evening in Beijing. I hadn’t realized that
fact until my then-roommate asked what had happened. Some of the city’s
haze had found a final resting spot on my do, giving me a salt-and

That’s a fairly innocuous scene to describe but forgive this next honest
one: I have never seen blacker stuff come out of my nose than when I lived
in Beijing. It’s not often you learn to appreciate the body’s air
filtration system then after seeing what said system filters out. Enough

U.S. ambassador on China air pollution

And have you ever tasted the air and been able to describe it as dusty and
metallic? At its worst, that’s what Beijing’s air tasted like. And deep
down you just knew that you a) shouldn’t be able to taste air and b) that
it shouldn’t be metallic. That’s just not right.

Memory 2: When I lived in Beijing I thought no air could be worse than that
city’s air

And I’m even more convinced of it today.

Beijing’s municipal health bureau says lung cancer rates have risen 60%
over the past ten years.  The disease is now the number one killer for the
capital’s residents. To be sure, China’s cultural affinity with cigarettes
is in large part to blame.  But China’s air quality really does add insult
to injury.

And as the country’s air quality becomes a topic of conversation so does
the U.S. embassy’s air monitoring station in Beijing. You might remember it
jumped to online fame last year for its air quality reading of “crazy
bad”. It measures particulates as small as 2.5 microns across. (For
comparison, a strand of hair can be as ‘wide’ as 100 microns across.)

The U.S. embassy spokesperson, Richard Buangan, told me that the station
maxed out on its measuring ability this past Sunday. The limit is 500. The
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limit is 35. Crazy bad, indeed. Mr.
Buangan said it passed 500 on Sunday at 5:22pm Beijing time. From then
through early Wednesday, its reading reported these two words: “very

China air pollution: ‘Slightly polluted’ or ‘hazardous’?

I challenge you to find someplace else that has consistently worse air

Memory 3: People just seemed to bear the smog and dust…and move on

But now, China’s citizens are losing their patience and they have a public
platform to voice their anger.  With the rise of Sina Weibo in China – the
country’s version of Twitter – so have risen the voices of discontent.

Our team in Beijing spotlighted a few of these for this article. They show
that fallout from this latest smog event doesn’t just involve particulate
matter – it includes suspicion, caution and frustration.

JOSEPH-SHEN:In 2006, Beijing shut down two monitoring sites which showed
the worst air pollution. In 2008, monitoring stations were moved outside of
the 6th ring road. That’s why the data showed that Beijing’s air quality
got improved.

小萝莉不是solinda:Beijing has severe air pollution, and one will be
poisoned as long as he breathes. Don’t forget to wear mask if you go out.

yico黄:Beijing’s air quality is crazy bad. The air smelled strange
yesterday morning, and I had the symptoms similar to catching a cold last
night, such as sneezing. My colleagues told me that they coughed a lot.
However, relevant departments still said that the air quality was good. As a
pregnant woman, I am extremely angry.

On top of all this, of 1000 people polled by Sina Weibo, 52% said they
wanted to leave Beijing because of the latest smog.

For those who can’t, they are the people who have pushed sales of masks and
air filters into the proverbial stratosphere.

The China Daily, the country’s English language paper, reported Wednesday
that air cleaning products were the most searched objects on – a
site similar to in the United States.  Another online vendor,, says it saw a 50% jump in sales of air cleaning products between
October and November.

Ah Beijing. You make me thankful for that which I have: cleaner air.
Relative to you, we all can definitely breathe a (cleaner) sigh of relief.

CNN’s Helena Hong contributed to this article from Beijing.

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