“It’s like taking a deep breath depth in the mountains,” says Xiaoxia Liu in her 15th floor apartment on the north side of the Beijing, “I was surprised to discover air could feel so clean in this city!”
Could she really be referring to the Beijing air, infamous for its off-the-chart pollution levels? Yes, but only when filtered through a respirator, the type you see builders wearing on a construction sites to keep out the asbestos.
Xiaoxia, a 27-year-old investment banker with a Masters degree from the UK, who lived in London for over a year, is nudging to me to throw away my disposable facemask
in favour for her heavy-duty respirator
. She’s right, given recent reports revealing that light masks such as mine –despite selling in booming numbers
and being touted as effective against the dangerous microparticle PM 2.5 – are in fact rather useless
at filtering harmful pollutants.
She demonstrates how effective her breathing gear is, showing me before and after pictures of the filters – blanche white and then mousy grey respectively – after a mere month of usage outside.
As someone who grew up in Beijing in the 1990s myself, the deterioration in air quality there is startling – blue skies were once the norm. Not being able to see beyond a certain building in the distance is now today’s reality, though, with readings based on the Air Quality Index (AQI) skyrocketing beyond 500 on the worst-hit days
, over 20 times the level set by the WHO
. But the difference in how it potentially affects us is stark – Xiaoxia is eight months pregnant.
The obvious pre-birth glow on her face rarely gets a public showing. “When the air is polluted and the AQI is high, I put on my respirator before leaving home in the morning, wearing it on the underground or in the cab to work,” she says. While she used to get lazy with the mask, it’s now obligatory on more than half the days each month. “I have to be responsible for the baby,” she says.
A LED screen shows the blue sky in Tiananmen Square during dangerous levels of air pollution in Beijing in February 2014 Photograph: Feng Li/Getty Images
The risks of high pollution levels for pregnant women are potentially significant. A number of international studies have indicated risks to children whose mothers are exposed to high levels of pollutants at pregnancy, include low birth weight
and long-term impacts onintelligence
Xiaoxia says that she really only became aware of the dangers of Beijing air after levels in January 2013 reached unprecedented highs
and were reported on both home and abroad. Since then, the health implications have become widely disseminated in China through the media and among friends on social networks.
As a banker working in the upscale Guomao or “World Trade” district of the city – the equivalent of Canary Wharf in London – Xiaoxia counts firmly as one of China’s urban “middle-class
”. At work she can breathe easy, being one of the very few in China to have filtered air supplied to her office via a central air-purifying system. At home however, Xiaoxia relies on her air purifier, which she says goes with her to whichever room she’s in.
“I am quite extreme in how seriously I take air pollution,” she says, referring to the fact that despite the dangers posed, the majority of people in Beijing don’t take measures. As a student who studied in the UK for three years, Xiaoxia says Beijing’s “uninhabitable environment” initially required a significant period of adjustment, including getting over the “Beijing cough”, common to many who re-enter.
Chinese citizens wear masks on their faces on a hazy day in Beijing, January 2014. Photograph: ROLEX DELA PENA/EPA
As a fellow Beijing resident myself, I sometimes count the frequency of mask wearers in the city on heavy smog days, and it’s always less than one in ten. Many mothers will also take their babies for a stroll during one of the city’s “airpocalypses
”, of which Xiaoxia has already experienced three bouts since the beginning of her pregnancy.
“The week of severe pollution that just passed was particularly hard, since we couldn’t open the windows for so long; I was considering buying an oxygen generator as it must be so unhealthy to have CO2 circulating the apartment,” she says.
For Xiaoxia’s husband, the windows and doors have become a niggling predicament – “I wake up dithering about whether it’s safe to let the outside air in,” he says. He bases his decision on the view out of the window each morning.
“Sometimes I feel like a lab-rat in this environment,” says Xiaoxia. She thinks her rigorous response to pollution is influenced by her time in London, which was “a comparison for just how clean the air could be”. Asked if she has intentions to leave Beijing, she says that the couple’s jobs are important considerations, but that the main ties to the city were her parents, who by traditional standards should remain close; but she wouldn’t rule out leaving, should conditions here remain unchanged.
A woman wearing a protective mask rides on a scooter along a overpass with near heavy traffic flow during a polluted day in Beijing in October 2013 Photograph: AP
How does the family propose to keep the baby healthy? Xiaoxia is frank: “I don’t intend to take the baby out when it’s polluted; there are always clear days to take the baby out for sunshine”. She says she wouldn’t agree with sport lessons in school during polluted days, calling such activities “inhumane”.
The thought of such life-changing limits for a child are alarming for someone like me who spent copious amounts of time playing outside. Such restrictions would have completely changed my childhood in Beijing.
“If the pollution was bad outside, I would ask my child to wear a mask, to school at least – I don’t know how he’d feel about that as it looks strange,” Xiaoxia says, laughing at the thought.
Until the skies clear up in Beijing, Xiaoxia is sticking firmly to her respirator, which she says has been met with ridicule and strange looks, but she doesn’t care. She has also noticed attitudes changing in the past year: whereas most people wore disposable masks, increasingly more are going for the serious or more “functional” types as she calls it. “And it’s much more comfortable than the lightweight versions – you’ll feel the difference when you take it off.”
For the foreseeable future, it’s status quo for Xiaoxia and her family where air is concerned, but she hopes things will change. “I’m doing the most I can to make sure I breathe clean air, but if you want to stay in this city, you have to endure the environment – there is no way out”.