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Air Pollution in China – A Photojournalist in Beijing

epa’s Regional Chief Photographer, Adrian Bradshaw, on air pollution in China

2003 we had the SARS outbreak and had to get to work wearing facemasks to avoid catching the deadly respiratory illness.

Heavy midmorning traffic amidst air pollution in Beijing, China, 25 November 2011. epa / Adrian Bradshaw

Heavy midmorning traffic amidst air pollution in Beijing, China, 25 November 2011. epa / Adrian Bradshaw — find out more

2014 and air pollution has made the old paper medical masks redundant: now we need industrial strength filters in our face masks. Even my ten year old daughter is an expert on the air quality index and PM2.5, the particulate measure that indicates whether the air is the usual ‘very unhealthy’ or the more alarming, maximum ‘hazardous’ level of 300.

A smartphone app shows hazardous levels of air pollution in Beijing, China, 26 March 2014. epa / Adrian Brashaw

A smartphone app shows hazardous levels of air pollution in Beijing, China, 26 March 2014. epa / Adrian Bradshaw

When the level reaches 150 or at some schools 200, all outdoor activities are halted. The index was only made to go up to 500, well above anything measured in the US where it originated, but it is now quite frequently off the charts in Beijing. As I write it is 427.

A policeman directs traffic in the heavy fog and smog in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China, 21 October 2013. Heavy fog shrouded northeastern China, disrupting traffic while pushing up air pollution in the cities. epa / Hao Bin

Heavy smog disrupts traffic in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China, 21 October 2013. epa / Hao Bin — find out more

The World Health Organisation has just released a report that as of 2012, the latest year with comprehensive figures, air pollution is the leading leading cause of premature death, accounting for more than 7 million deaths annually around the world. The problem is global but the epicentre is northeast Asia. The Chinese government is now openly tackling the problem of air pollution, at least rhetorically, after years of denial. Premier Li Keqiang declared ‘War on Pollution’ at his recent annual press conference as a national priority. An official survey made the observation that only three of China’s major cities meet national air quality standards. Thousands don’t.

Chinese citizens wear masks on a hazy day in Beijing, China, 16 January 2014. Reports stated that local governments in China may soon face stiffer fines and administrative punishment if found guilty of failing to implement air pollution prevention measures. epa / Rolex dela Pena

Chinese citizens wear masks on a hazy day in Beijing, China, 16 January 2014. Reports stated that local governments in China may soon face stiffer fines and administrative punishment if found guilty of failing to implement air pollution prevention measures. epa / Rolex dela Pena. — find out more

Survival takes precedence over getting pictures in those conditions and most people simply follow government orders and stay at home. When we do venture out it is with the best protection possible, either the maximum filtration of the 3M N99 disposable mask or the horror movie type Respro masks which bring back the look Hannibal Lector made so unfashionable in ‘Silence of the Lambs’. Even with these devices a constant hacking cough and stinging eyes has been the norm living in Beijing. A long term study just published by the British Medical Journal and Beijing University indicates that children born in Beijing now will lose 15 to 16 years of life expectancy due to toxins in the air.

Residents of Beijing try to cope with air pollution which exceeds the level of 400 on the air quality index, rating a hazardous warning, in Beijing, China, 26 March 2014. epa / Adrian Bradshaw

Residents of Beijing try to cope with air pollution which exceeds the level of 400 on the air quality index, rating a hazardous warning, in Beijing, China, 26 March 2014. epa / Adrian Bradshaw — find out more

Besides the personal concerns this story is one of global importance: it has been reported that the number one source of air pollution on the west coast of the US is China. Most of the toxins come from coal, much of which is imported from countries that insist on cutting out coal burning in their own territory but don’t seem to have a problem selling to China. This may change. In the meantime it feels like photographers are going to have to get used to a more monochrome look hereabouts.

Adrian Bradshaw Facing Air Pollution

Photographer Adrian Bradshaw ventures out with his respro N99 face mask to protect against hazardous levels of air pollution in Beijing, China, 23 March 2014. epa / Adrian Bradshaw

Photographer Adrian Bradshaw ventures out with his respro N99 face mask to protect against hazardous levels of air pollution in Beijing, China, 23 March 2014. epa / Adrian Bradshaw — find out more

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