October 26, 2014

WALSH | “Airpocalypse Now”

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By CONNA WALSH

Whenever one goes abroad, there are always things that they will inevitably miss about their home country — friends, family, food, etc. After two months in Beijing, I can confirm that despite my incredible experiences so far, I still miss my friends, family, Wegmans, CTB, milk, spinach, cheese and a thousand other little things that remind me of home. However, I’ve also discovered another thing that I am constantly pining for — one that might seem a little strange for the typical study abroad experience.

I miss fresh air. I miss blue skies, white clouds and the feeling of the sun on my skin. I miss being able to take a big gulp of air without feeling my trachea contract in protest of all the harmful particulate matter making its way into my lungs. I miss running outside. I miss breathing without not-so-irrational fears of getting lung cancer in my future.

To fully grasp the dire air quality situation in Beijing — infamously dubbed by Western media as the “airpocalypse” — let’s quickly talk about some science. Air quality is measured in units of PM 2.5, which stands for particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers. According to the World Health Organization, ideal air quality should fall between zero to 50 PM 2.5, with readings up to 100 PM 2.5 being somewhat acceptable.

As I put the finishing touches on this column, Beijing’s current PM 2.5 level is 469. According to WHO, any PM 2.5 reading over 300 is hazardous for human health, and even the healthiest people will show signs of decreased respiratory function. Spending an entire day exposed to this level of air pollution is the equivalent of smoking 21 or more cigarettes.

Now, let’s back away from this technical analysis for a minute and look towards Upstate New York. Not only is this charming region home to Cornell University, but it is also my home as native Syracusan. Last weekend, PM 2.5 levels in Syracuse measured in at 13. On the same day in Ithaca, a whopping measurement of two was recorded.

Having spent the past 21 years breathing in the pristine air of Onondaga and Tompkins Counties, I’ve been having a rather difficult time adjusting to Beijing’s carcinogen-filled smog. For the first couple days, I was able to shield myself beneath a cloak of denial — that strange haze occluding the city skyline wasn’t pollution, it was just fresh fog rolling down from the mountains!

This delusion quickly dissipated early on during the semester. Now, I religiously check Beijing’s air quality multiple times a day, trying to determine how anxious I should be about going outside. But honestly, walls and doors do little to keep the smog out of buildings. The cracks and chinks in Beijing’s infrastructure allows the pollution to permeate inside, denying the city’s population a safe refuge with breathable air.

For now, I am extremely thankful that for me, the smog is a temporary concern. In December, I get to return to the United States and ecstatically inhale the crisp, wintery air of Syracuse. Until then, I will just have to deal with the coughing, the tightness in my throat and, yes, even the disturbing black specks that show up on my contact lenses and in my nose.

But for China’s own citizens, this problem will not end anytime soon. The public health crisis resulting from air pollution is becoming increasingly dire. According to an Oxford study, cancer is now the leading cause of death in China for the first time in recorded history. Among these cancers, lung cancer is the most common, and most cases in urban areas are associated with long-term exposure to air pollution.

Unfortunately, forecasts show that this winter there will be no refuge from the air pollution. As temperatures continue to drop, the burning of coal will increase to fuel increasing electricity demands. As a result, the smog will worsen. Beijing’s PM 2.5 record, 755, occurred in January 2013, at the height of winter coal burning.

China’s government is currently scrambling to clean up the nation’s air, as the international community places China’s environmental issues under intense scrutiny. Unless major changes are made to the country’s industrial sector, however, the situation is not likely to change in the near future.

After experiencing Beijing’ smog for myself, I know that when I return home in December, I will never again take clean air for granted. This semester has certainly made me more aware of the world’s environmental issues, and has inspired me to work towards solving these problems in my career. Next time you walk outside in Ithaca, be thankful that you can breathe without concern — a basic human right that hundreds of millions of people around the world are denied.

Conna Walsh is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at cwalsh@cornellsun.com. A Word with Walsh appears alternate Mondays this semester.

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