In Defense of Little Lungs: The Challenge of Raising Kids in Smoggy Beijing

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Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images

Chinese girls wear face masks to protect against pollution on the streets of Beijing on December 7, 2011.

The survey arrived in our older son’s bookbag, along with a sheet of Chinese characters he was learning at his bilingual pre-school in Beijing. It pertained to an index measuring air pollution (on a scale of 0-500) and asked at what point my husband and I wanted to restrict our child from outdoor play. Did we want to keep him indoors when the index reached above PM 150, which rates as “unhealthy,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency? Did we dare go up to PM 200, which is considered “very unhealthy”? What level of toxicity was suitable for our child’s lungs?

As parents we make decisions that will have profound effects on our children. My husband and I tend toward the germs-will-only-make-them-stronger school of parenting. We do not carry around bottles of hand sanitizer. Our sons pet the odd dog or elephant without a frenzied wet-wipe session afterward. The boys eat what we eat, which means they have developed an early taste for bitter gourd and jellyfish.

But when we moved from Bangkok to Beijing last year, it suddenly occurred to us that we might not want them to breathe the same air that we breathe. Our then three-year-old was mystified by why it always seemed cloudy in Beijing, even if it rarely rained. As he learned Mandarin in school, one of his first compound nouns was “air pollution.” He can now gaze out at the sky from our 16th floor apartment and hazard an appraisal. Does it look like a PM 150 day in which the tops of skyscrapers are veiled by a dishwater haze or a PM 300 one in which nearby buildings are almost completely hidden in a grey-sock murk?

Beijing’s air pollution has gotten so bad that a local official recently admitted that the problem was a “crisis.” Flights to and from Beijing’s airport were grounded earlier this month because of smog. The Chinese government has announced that it may modify the outdated way in which it measures air pollution in 2016. But what about the state of the capital’s skies now? The pollution index my son’s school uses to monitor the viability of recess isn’t the official Chinese one but an alternative measurement run out of the U.S. embassy in Beijing. The Chinese monitor measures particulates between 2.5 and 10 micrometers. The American one tallies smaller bits of yuck that are considered most hazardous to people’s health.

The difference between the two indexes can be startling. In early December, for instance, when smog reduced visibility to that of a Siberian snowstorm, the Chinese index cheerfully deemed the air as merely “lightly polluted.” By contrast, the American reading topped 500. Because the U.S. index was only designed to go up to PM 500, anything over that level used to result in a reading called “crazy bad,” the product of a wry programmer’s sense of humor. But now, reportedly to placate irate Beijing officials, such off-the-chart levels have been reworded as “beyond index.”

Do we really want to subject our kids to life in a city “beyond index?” The most disconcerting thing about living in Beijing is how quickly we start thinking that gray is the new blue, that smog is just fog. Often it’s only upon returning from a trip and landing at Beijing’s haze-swathed airport that I look out the window and think this really can’t be good for little lungs. But then I’ll arrive home and be told by someone in my family that today the air wasn’t so bad, after all.

A few days after our son’s school put out the air-pollution survey, the results came in. Parents, both Chinese and foreign, had voted to increase the acceptable level of pollution for outside play from PM 150 to PM 200. (This may be because some parents like us have paid extra for outdoor classes such as rollerblading—and are getting grumpy about kids returning home with nary a blade rolled because of the persistent pollution.) In U.S. EPA terms, that meant a change from “unhealthy” to “very unhealthy.” But the insidious thing about air pollution is that it isn’t necessarily that much healthier inside than out. A cloud hangs over Beijing’s classrooms—even if its playgrounds are empty.