Pollution, “Wumai,” and Beijing’s Airpocalypse

In the back of my head, I kind of “know” that there is a pollution problem in China. I mean, really – there’s a pollution problem everywhere, but my vague sense is that things have come to a head in China. But despite this generalized sense, reading Oliver Wainwright’s article Inside Beijing’s Airpocalypse describes more than just poor air quality – it paints a picture of a city made “almost uninhabitable” by pollution.

Reception classes stay indoors when the air quality index (AQI) hits 180 – measured on an official scale of 500 by various sensors across the city. For primary kids the limit is 200, while the eldest students are allowed to brave the elements up to 250. Anything above 300 and school trips are called off. The World Health Organisation, meanwhile, recommends a safe exposure level of 25.

If those numbers aren’t alarming enough, the day that Wainwright arrived in Beijing the AQI was at 460. Which just kind of boggles the mind.

And yet denial still persists. Many Beijingers tend to use the word “wumai” (meaning fog), rather than “wuran” (pollution), to describe the poor air quality…

There are some really unbelievable things in the article, the least of which is people donning air masks while running a marathon. It’s really an eye-opening report, and worth a read.

This is a silly thing, but I remember reading Stephen King’s The Running Man a long while ago, when I was a kid. I’m not talking about the terrible movie version – I’m talking the book. In King’s version of the future, the world is completely overrun with pollution, with people forced to wear small air filters that would reside in their noses.

At least… the wealthy people had these filters. For the poor masses, they just had to contend with the poor air quality (and died faster, as a result). Reading over this article and seeing some of these photos, I’m reminded very much of that book.

[Photo by Kevin Frayer]

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