A recent report from The Guardian speaks about the air quality in one of China’s most heavily-populated areas. Beijing, the nation’s capital city, has an air quality index (AQI) that is reportedly among the worst in the world. According to the report, it is akin to a rehearsal for life on an inhabitable planet.
The reality however, as the report author Oliver Wainwright puts it, is that the seemingly-uninhabitable conditions are upon citizens in the present day. There is no rehearsal; they simply live in a perpetual haze that clouds the air in front of their eyes. The AQI scale used in China ranges from 0 (healthiest) to 500 (unhealthiest). When Wainwright recently arrived in China, the meter reached 460. Although he did not say how long that level persisted, he did describe it as being near “maximum doom.” The World Health Organization recommends a rating of 25 or below.
Residents have long tried to resist the doom by wearing face masks. Some have even upgraded to the sorts of gas masks one might see in a picture from wartime. On the worst days, people do not even go outside. Bike lanes on the street witness no bikes because it is either impossible to get enough fresh air to pedal or the consciousness of one’s health simply changes at that point. Biking no longer becomes a healthy activity.
Organizations such as schools and universities are doing their part to avoid the smog by constructing domes over their buildings. The British School, an international college in Beijing, as well as Dulwich College, and the International School of Beijing have constructed such bubbles. The British School has even begun enforcing strict air safety codes which supplement air curtains on doors and air purifiers that operate throughout the college.
Chinese citizens are also beginning to monitor air quality on their smartphones. Parents disallow kids from going outside during days with high levels of smog. Some families are also moving out of the city in search of cleaner air. Meanwhile, schools are forced to create artificial domes that seal in purified air while keeping out what lies beyond.
Wainwright says some individuals and organization are having to be inventive to find ways to clean the air. Matt Hope, a British artist, created the “breathing bicycle” that filters air as riders pedal. A long hose attached to a fighter pilot mask moves the air from the purifying contraption in the rear of the bike up to the face of the rider in front. Hope says it is a “ridiculous solution to a ridiculous problem.” It is meant to spread awareness of the problem rather than become a mass-produced cure-all.
Other solutions include Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde’s idea to have “electronic vacuum cleaners” literally suck the smog out of the air by electrically charging smog particles. Wet disposition — the spraying of water which can collect unwanted particles and bring them down to the street — is an idea that could make use of thousands of cloud-seeding artillery guns and dozens of planes in reserve from China’s efforts to battle water shortages with artificial rain. A solution from the 1950s that could have positive implications more than 60 years later.
Regardless of the exact solution, it is clear that something has to be done. AQI levels that high cannot persist for long without causing lasting effects on the population that will certainly impact overall health and potentially impact the number of people willing to live in the capital. Roosegaarde says he wants his vacuum cleaners to do more than suck pollution out of the sky. He wants the desirable nature of areas with clean air to spur more people to action. If people can see the clean air and begin talking about it, he indicates, they will demand clean air for all of Beijing.
Image courtesy of Lzy881114 via Wikimedia Commons