Airpocalypse Now: Life in Smog 


When you live in Beijing, or in fact a majority of cities in China, you will inevitably be brought face to face with the unpleasant reality of smog. The terrible air quality across the nation of the past days is not uncommon particularly in winter, when the burning coals used for heating come together with the increased use of cars and the factories’ regular output to create a perfect storm. As a result, smog, its effects and your coping mechanisms become a big part of your daily life. Here are a couple of impressions and realities of a life in smog.

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Before and after

How do you know the air’s really bad?

My personal measurement of whether the smog is bad is whether I can see it in the underground. If I descend on the escalators and see that it’s all a bit hazy, I know it’s time to go home and stay home. In addition, when there’s an official red alert, as there has been these past days, there is an announcement in the underground reminding passengers to “take the necessary precautions”.

The aqi readings are of course an indicator, however you need to make sure to check on the right website, because the measurements differ massively. The US embassy one is usually pretty accurate because they measure in Beijing’s CBD, and other regions of the city, which they clearly indicate. The official Beijing city one’s on the other hand, I hear, are done atop one of Beijings hills (I think it’s Jingshan, overlooking the Forbidden City, but can’t say for sure), and so readings tend to be on average around 30% lower.

What can you do against smog?

We have four air filters and still it was over 130 in our flat the day before yesterday. I don’t have the laser egg that most expats have because I’m aware of the fact that this can make you obsessed with air quality as you check out every single inch of the flat. You might end up cowered in the corner farthest from the window between your air filter and your TV as you try to find the one spot in your flat with breathable air.

I’m pretty bad with remembering to carry masks but we were given some by our employer so at least I have one in my bag constantly now. There is a massive collection of masks available online, from the inexpensive, most basic, to the pimped up, luxury model. However, the cost will add up. After all your 5 air filters already set you back by around 10,000 RMB and you need to replace their filters every couple of months. Smog is bloody expensive.

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A filter in every room #datsmoglife

What are the effects of smog on your body? 
For me it tends to be dizziness, feeling short of breath, sore throats but most importantly my head starts to hurt and my sinuses become tender, so my nose blocks easily. I have heard some worrying stories recently about people who are sensitive, especially people with asthma, just keeling over from the smog. So if you are a sensitive person or suffer from asthma, just stay away. It’s not worth putting your life at risk.

After a while it becomes more of an emotional issue (you decide to ignore the real health effects, otherwise you’d run screaming to the airport to get the next plane out of here; but wait, they’ve canceled all flights because of smog, so you’re stuck). Not seeing blue sky for days and feeling constantly sick when you know you needn’t really affects my mood. I get so depressed. To the point that I simply feel grateful for blue skies. Being stuck inside for most of the day doesn’t help either. I recently realized that in the last three months since we moved to this new flat, I have had the windows open to let in fresh air once. That’s right, you read correctly. Once.

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Being able to open the window is now an Insta-worthy event…

What about Chinese attitudes to smog?

While most of the people in my immediate surrounding are aware of pollution and its effects, there are still some areas of China, usually more rural, where people still think smog doesn’t really affect you in a negative way. I have even heard that in some areas employers threatened people’s jobs if they decided not to come into work due to the red alert, although not going to work or school on such days is fairly common, and technically the law.

Netizens tend to deal with it with sarcasm and black humor, frequently taking pictures of the smog and drawing the outline of the building that is usually visible in it. There is also a Wechat post that tends to circulate whenever the smog hits, talking about the smog in London in the 60s and how they took care of the problem. A local friend of mine ironically remarked that this means that China is “on the right track, catching up with the leading economies of the world.”

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Didn’t there used to be a building there?

What about children?

I don’t have children, so this is a huge worry off my mind. The fact that smog reportedly has the worst effects on little children’s developing lungs means to me that I have decided I won’t be procreating in China. I don’t envy the parents here who do have to deal with it, as it’s a huge headache. Finding masks for small children is almost impossible and for newborns there are none, I believe. Also it’s really frustrating for the children to be locked up at home and not be able to go okay outside on these days.

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Too much choice for comfort

To be fair, not every day is as terrible as the past few days have been. But increasingly I find, that too many are below the acceptable threshold. Europe’s skies are calling.

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