From my earliest memories in China and Taiwan over 20 years ago, I remember the highly visible air pollution swirling around me. In Nanjing, huge piles of coal and black smoke spewing out of tall towers were easy to see. In Taiwan, black ash rained down on my balcony and the smell of the burning from the dump in back of the school where I taught sometimes was bad enough to cancel classes. After a visit to a friend in Beijing, I clocked a full ten minutes of the plane lifting up until we made it into clear, blue skies. People sometimes wore masks, but most didn't. It was so scary in Taiwan that I made a promise to my body to leave after my one-year teaching contract.
As the skies darkened, the trajectory of modernization that China was on in the 1990s became crystal clear — everyone wanted his or her own car to drive. Gridlock was assured as each of my friends who never thought they'd own a car actually became a car owner.
Third-world countries have the advantage of seeing the mistakes of developed countries, but like willful teenagers who feel invulnerable, they move full steam ahead on the same collision courses with pollution and environmental degradation. It was no surprise to me that breathing has become a newsworthy topic in Beijing of late. Headliners made up words like "airpocalypse" and "airmageddon" to describe the severe extent of the problem this January and February. Generally, cancer in younger people has risen in China. How much is induced by air pollution?
Although there are few good ideas on how to deal with the terrible air, there are scientific measurements to tell them just how unhealthy breathing is in Beijing. Particulate matter can and is quantified. If anything above 300 is "hazardous," and the index stops at 500, what do the readings of over 1,000 micrograms say about what's entering the tender lungs of Beijing residents? And those outside Beijing can't breathe so easily either.
Supply and demand makes entrepreneurship go round — good fresh air is no longer plentiful or free. Enter the businessmen who see profit in selling sophisticated face masks for the equivalent of $50. Zhao Danqing's factory has sold over 1 million so far. A joint venture of a Shenzhen company and a California company teamed up to build a huge dome above parts of the Beijing International School. Under the dome, the students play tennis, soccer, badminton, and basketball protected from the lethal air outside the dome. Lowering the particulate measurement from 650 micrograms outside the dome to 25 inside the dome makes other schools, government sports facilities, and even wealthy families want domes too. In fact, you can buy a 54,000 square foot dome for a reasonable $1 million. With a wealthier general population, home air filters are selling well. $1600 will buy a machine capable of filtering a bedroom.
A creative entrepreneur who became rich from re-cycling, Chen Guangbiao, is selling cans of "fresh air" gathered from far outside Beijing for 80 cents apiece with the proceeds going to charities. He even handed out cans for free on a street in Beijing to make his point that China needs to think of its children and grandchildren instead of GDP growth.
But, as they gasp to breathe in the poisonous air, is anyone listening?
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