As in other large Chinese cities, such as Guangzhou and Shanghai, Beijing’s residents are mostly from other parts of the country and as they are gradually allowed to learn more about the health effects of chronic pollution, many are having second thoughts about life in the big smoke.
At least among the more educated and wealthier segment of society, strategies for leaving Beijing have become a popular topic on Sina Weibo, the largest of China’s Twitter-like microblog platforms.
One user wrote: “One of my close colleagues has finally escaped Beijing. With expensive housing, expensive goods, terrible pollution and expensive health care, he decided to run off to a city where the pressure will be much less — London.”
Air pollution has always been bad in China’s mega-cities, but in recent months in northern China, readings of the most harmful types of toxic smog have reached 40 times the level recommended by the World Health Organization.
More important, real-time information is available that allows anyone with a computer or smartphone to match hard data with the choking clouds they can see and smell in front of them.
After the U.S. Embassy began in 2009 collecting data on the fine particulate matter known as PM2.5 that is the most dangerous to human health, a public campaign eventually forced the Beijing government to do the same. Hourly readings are now available online from both sources.
That access to information has transformed air pollution from a nonissue just two years ago into a source of deep public anger at a time when the damaging health effects of pollution are also becoming clear.
A World Bank study in 2007 estimated that each year China sees 400,000 premature deaths due to outdoor air pollution — a finding so explosive that the government tried to suppress it at the time. However, one of the scientists who worked on that study, Pan Xiaochuan of the Peking University School of Public Health, said the true figure is probably far higher because the methodology used in the report was conservative.
Indeed, a survey released last week that looked at causes of deaths worldwide found that outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, accounting for almost 40 percent of the global total. The study was conducted by a group of universities and the WHO.
“China is starting to experience the long-term health damage caused by pollution, and the past 10 years have been like a period of concentrated outbreak,” Pan said, pointing to increasing rates of lung cancer and digestive diseases across the country.
Pan says that lack of data prevents scientists from obtaining an accurate measure of the true health impact of the air pollution that blankets eastern China.