Photo: Andy Blair
But the deadly smog that’s seized Beijing and much of northern China over the past week is unprecedented. Or at least, the worst it’s been since China began releasing pollution data in the last few years.
Over the weekend, an air monitoring station located at the American embassy in Beijing was literally off-the-charts, registering as “Beyond Index.”
Pollution levels soared past the target considered safe by The World Health organisation, requiring schoolchildren be kept indoors and flooding hospitals with people complaining of breathing and heart problems.
The public health crisis has been a wake-up call for Chinese officials. State media, environmentalists, and concerned citizens are now pleading with the government to take drastic measures to tackle pollution.
“What needs to happen is for the government to take long-term action by centralizing the heating systems, so that individual families in rural areas do not burn coal, and also cutting down on car use in the city,” professor John Cai, director of the Centre for Healthcare Management and Policy at the China Europe International Business School, told the AFP’s Neil Connor.
Of course, what few people probably remember is that New York City, and much of the eastern United States, faced a similar environmental disaster during the 1950s and ’60s.
A report by the Environmental Protection Agency documents one period in late November 1966 when air quality deteriorated significantly in cities along the Eastern Seaboard.
On Nov. 24, 1966, a dense smog shrouded all of New York City.
Between Nov. 24 and Nov. 30, New York City documented an increase of about 24 smog-related deaths per day.
The East Coast was getting a whiff of the lethal air that had long plagued Los Angeles.
Sadly, this was the reality before any anti-pollution laws.
“Air Pollution has become a ubiquitous threat to our health and welfare because of the ever-increasing emissions of air contaminates into the never-increasing atmosphere. The result is an increased exposure of large segments of the population,” the report states.
Smog doesn’t generally occur because of a sudden increase in air pollutants, but because of certain weather conditions that trap pollutants in the air. And because smog is a very visible example air pollution, it can trigger dramatic responses.
Most Americans thumbed their nose to the problem of air pollution … until it was literally suffocating them to death.
The report notes that “public concern about air pollution (as judged by publicity) is minimal except during those periods when the conditions of restricted natural ventilation are sufficiently extensive to warrant issuing an air pollution potential forecast.”
The United States eventually adopted stronger pollution measures, including the Clean Air Act in 1970, which regulated emissions from factories and cars.
The question is whether these latest pictures of smog-choked China will be the indelible images that finally move Chinese regulators to launch meaningful action against pollution.
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