BEIJING – In early January, a toxic cloud of smog settled over Beijing. For nearly a week, it wreathed the city in a choking, yellow haze.
Levels of PM2.5 — microscopic particles that can be absorbed into the lungs and bloodstream endangering human health — peaked at well over 600, more than 20 times the level of daily exposure considered acceptable by the World Health Organization.
Despite the almost apocalyptic conditions, life went on. People practiced tai chi in city parks. Commuters biked to work. Children went to school and played outside. Few wore masks.
As winter — thought to have the worst air — winds down, even those few masks will begin to disappear. The pollution, however, will remain.
Most news reports about Beijing’s infamous smog depict a city forced to dramatically change its daily rhythms in the face of a toxic environment.
But photographs of a population clad in gas masks and children forced to play in domed playgrounds are more fantasy than reality.
For most residents, the miasma, like the city’s crawling traffic, is just one more daily nuisance.
Over 90 percent of city residents know that the smog is bad for them, according to a recent poll conducted by the Beijing Institute of Social Psychology. But only around 42 percent of them have ever bought a mask.
Many fewer bother to wear one even on the year’s most polluted days, a fact that is plain to those who have spent more than a few weeks on the city’s streets.
N-95 type respirator masks are cheap, widely available, and, when properly worn, have been shown to reduce exposure to PM2.5 and other airborne particles by 95 percent or more.
But “the average person has an insufficient understanding of air pollution, so lots of people don’t wear masks,” said Anna Guo, cofounder of Smart Air, a company that sells inexpensive air purifiers over the Internet.
Late last year, the company hosted an informational seminar about its products at an upscale coffee shop in Gulou, a trendy Beijing neighborhood. A small group, about half foreign and half Chinese, listened attentively, as Guo ran through Powerpoint slides in Chinese and English elaborating on methods, including using masks, for reducing their exposure to air pollution.
The seminars, which are held several times a month in a variety of locations, attract mostly expats. Chinese, a company representative said, turn out in much smaller numbers and tend to be more skeptical of anti-pollution measures.
That attitude comes at a high cost, according to Song Guojun, a professor at Beijing’s Renmin University of China, who estimates that air pollution-related health problems may cost the city as much as 9 percent of its gross domestic product annually.
The problem is not limited to Beijing. Across China, smog was responsible for 670,000 deaths in 2012 alone, according to a recent study conducted as part of a collaboration between Chinese academics and government organizations. A paper that appeared in a British medical journal, The Lancet, put the number for 2010 at almost twice that.
If correct, that means that air pollution may have been responsible for as many as 13 percent of all the country’s deaths that year alone.
China has implemented a number of large-scale fixes intended to address the sources of smog, but in even the most optimistic assessments, major improvements are at least five years away.
In the meantime, Beijing has taken a few modest steps to protect its denizens.
The city regularly publishes data on air quality and has instituted a color-coded alert system — starting at blue for clear air days and topping out at red for toxic levels of pollution — to warn people when pollutants are dangerously high.
On days when smog reaches extreme levels, the law mandates that the city close down factories and pull cars off the streets. Schoolchildren are not allowed to play outside.
But the measures, while a step in the right direction, are insufficient, environmental activists and academics agree.
The government “should tell people the concentration of each pollutant,” according to Renmin University’s Song, and make more efforts to “tell people the danger of the risk from pollution.”
It is not clear how much difference regulatory changes would make. Beijing has so far mostly ignored its own rules, never declaring a code red despite air quality readings that were literally off the charts.
Even if the city does improve and better implement its regulations, it will still have to work hard to change people’s behavior.
Although more Beijingers are wearing masks than ever before, skepticism and indifference remain high.
On a recent smoggy afternoon, despite the rules, the courtyard of a middle school near the city’s center was filled with students practicing soccer and cheerleading routines.
Only a handful wore masks.
A mother in her 40s stood by the gate, waiting for her son. Asked if she thought he ought to wear protection, she shrugged.
“Today’s not too bad,” she said.
A few blocks away, Beijing’s tallest building was barely visible through the haze.
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