Beijing's first red alert just sent the city back to a time when smog could mean instant death

Orange Alert, Beijing. Not Red. Picture: Getty Images

There’s a passage in Louis de Bernieres’ latest novel “The Dust That Falls From Dreams”, which describes a time in post-WWI Birmingham, where most of the heavy industry relied on coal:

“She turned to look at the street and noticed to her left that there was a sizeable pack of people of all ages running towards her.

She then realised why. Chasing them along, as high as the houses, was a dense wave of roiling yellow smoke. She saw an old man stumble and fall, and two younger men seize him under the arms and drag him. She turned to the door and hammered on it again, desperate to get out of its way.”

You’ll find similar scenes in Dickens, the poems of T.S. Eliot and just about all the Sherlock Holmes novels or any piece of literature wishing to describe how dismal London was in the first half of the last century when it was in the grip of smog.

It doesn’t happen so much these days, because in 1956, the UK parliament passed the first Clean Air Act which saw residents in the worst affected areas banned from using fuels that create smoke. Coal and coke, mainly.

The Act was introduced because in 1952, from December 5 to December 9, cold weather and no wind combined to settle a thick yellow blanket over London.

It was known as “The Big Smoke”, or “Great Smog of ’52” and before it had even lifted, it had killed 4000 people. Another 100,000 fell ill and a revised estimate in 2004 put the death toll at a possible 12,000.

Piccadilly Circus, London, December 6, 1952. Picture: Getty Images

But 4000 who died did so during the event – not 10 years down the track from complications. They died from lung infections and choking on pus.

Worse, they couldn’t leave the house to get to a hospital and couldn’t rely on ambulances because the ambulance service had shut down as visibility had been reduced to under two metres on the streets.

So fast-forward to 2015, where China is suddenly bullocking into modern era and wrestling with population and prosperity booms the likes no one has seen since, well, the coal-fired Industrial Revolution.

This week, Beijing authorities issued the city’s first ever “red alert” for pollution.

Schools and businesses were closed, certain types of vehicles were ordered off the streets and outdoor construction work ground to a halt. Just like in 1950s London, even venturing outside was considered unhealthy this week in Beijing.

Think about that. Most of us are used to the notion that sending your kids outside to play is a healthy option.

Stay alive, stay inside. Picture: Getty Images

Beijing’s environmental protection bureau has had an alert system in place for some time based on an “Air Quality Index”. The AQI is based on real-time measurements of pollutants and size of particulates and certain levels instantly trigger yellow, orange or red alerts.

Last week, we reported Beijing had issued a “rare” orange alert. That put air pollution up to 35 times the World Health Organisation’s recommended safety levels.

Coincidentally, a Chinese performance artists known as “Nut Brother” had just put the finishing touches on his solid “smog brick”.

Picture: Nut Brother/Sina

For 100 days, Nut Brother dragged a wheezing, industrial-strength vacuum cleaner through Beijing’s polluted streets, with the hose pointed skyward. He then took the dust to a factory and had it mixed with clay and water and fired into a brick.

It was clearly symbolic, but maybe something for Chinese officials to ponder during this week’s climate change talks in Paris.

According to independent news mag Caixin, Beijing has had several recent instances where the red alert should have been triggered, but officials had, up until this week, resisted, perhaps due to the cost of closures or international embarrassment.

This time around, the levels were predicted to be unsafe for at least three days, and clearly, despite wide acceptance of its pollution problems, even Beijing isn’t ready to deal with people actually collapsing in its streets.

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