1 Mar 2013

Air-pocalypse now: the hazardous pollution in China's cities

How bad is China’s air pollution? Asia Correspondent John Sparks meets residents of an apartment block in China’s most polluted city, who have found their homes enveloped in black smoke.

Looking for a spacious new apartment you say? No problem. Three bedrooms in the city centre? Got it. Shiny, stainless steel mechanisms in the kitchen? Done. Cut-glass chandelier in the living room? Oh yes.

What about the neighbours – are they nice?

Well, there we have a problem. There is nothing wrong with the flats at International City Apartments.  They are modern and centrally located – just 20 minutes by bus from the centre of Shijiazhuang, a fast-growing Chinese city of 10 million.

However, that central location has turned out to be anything but enviable. Four months after the residents of International City moved in, a giant furnace located on the plot next door started belching fine, dark smoke. The next door neighbour was, in fact, a coal-fired power plant and within a couple of days their flats turned black. Residents have reported a variety of health problems and blame the recent deaths of two elderly tenants on the noxious air.

The group from International City are not the only ones to suffer though. Cold weather in China has been accompanied by the worst bout of air pollution that anyone can seem to remember. It’s been so bad internet users have dubbed it the “air-pocalyspe”, and their anger has been fed by a powerful new tool – information about air quality.

State media weather forecasts have long been discounted – a quick look out the window is more effective. But the decision in 2008 by the US embassy to release air quality readings from their site in central Beijing has really shaken things up.

The Americans’ monitoring device measures the prevalence of tiny particles in the air and grades them according to the standard air quality index. This winter, their readings for Beijing have been literally off the charts. On a scale of 0 to 500, with 500 representing “extremely hazardous”, the US embassy has recorded numbers as high as 886.

The Chinese authorities have been forced to follow suit, albeit grudgingly (China says the US embassy’s air quality readings are an infringement of its sovereignty) and enterprising web designers now deliver the figures direct to peoples’ smartphones.

Data from the Chinese authorities is not trusted by everyone, but it does show that Shijiazhuang had dirtiest air in the country last month. Environmental groups go further. Greenpeace, for example, told us that the city has clocked up scores of over 1000 on the air quality index.  Just to give you an idea of how bad that is, a group of US airport smoking-lounges were measured in January – the average between them was 166.6.

People here have responded by limiting their time outdoors and donning face masks when they do venture out – although the residents of International City Apartments took their concerns one step further. On the evening our visit, they argued their way into the coal-fired power plant and confronted the men who work there.

You can see what happened in our report (above). Suffice it say that the leader of our raiding party, a small businessman called Tan Jian, uncovered the fact that the plant was operating illegally. Plant supervisers told him they were “in the process of applying for environmental permissions”. Yet this grim-looking plant continues to burn coal in the middle of Shijiazhuang.

So if you are thinking are buying, there are bargains to be had. The folks at International City told us they paid between £300,000 and £500,000 for their apartments – but it is likely they are desperate to sell. Here is a link to a local estate agent: http://sjz.focus.cn/votehouse/982.html – and remember to take your face mask.

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