How To Prevent China's 'Airpocalypse' From Happening In The United States

We spoke to an atmospheric scientist who weighed in on the news coming out of China.

How To Prevent China's 'Airpocalypse' From Happening In The United States

In an unprecedented decision, the Chinese government issued a "red alert" for smog, acknowledging overwhelming air pollution in more than a dozen of its biggest cities. 

After several cities issued the red alert independently, China's national observatory raised the threat level as well for the first time ever, making global headlines. Consumed by air pollution, a total of 24 cities are now under the red alert. Flights are being canceled and residents are being warned to stay inside.

The population affected by the red alert is larger than the populations of the United States, Mexico and Canada combined.


But what does this red alert mean? How polluted is the air? What is it like to be in China? And could this happen here in the United States?

To answer these questions, A Plus spoke to Dr. Misha Boehm, an atmospheric scientist. Boehm, who has worked in China and studied air quality in some of the cities now under red alert, answered questions via email. We've published her answers below.

First off, in laymen's terms, what does this alert mean? Are the people in these cities in danger of a serious health crisis if they go outside and breathe this air in?  

It's somewhat like continuously breathing smoke from a camp fire, with particles coating the inside of your lungs and inhibiting oxygen absorption, eyes stinging, and with the unfortunate addition of thousands of toxic and carcinogenic compounds. Imagine that: walking down the street is like standing downwind of a smoking fire – except it's all day, every day, and you can't outrun it. The health risks are severe, beginning with eye and throat irritation, shortness of breath, and unusual fatigue, and exacerbating respiratory and heart conditions, resulting in many more deaths. The World Health Organization estimated 400,000 additional deaths per year due to air pollution in China, and approximately 5.5 million worldwide.

Beijing residents wear face masks in smog during a hazy day in 2014. testing /

What did you learn about places like this while abroad? What is happening that the air can be this bad?

It's a combination of fossil-fuel dependence and huge, dense populations. Coal power, automobiles, and manufacturing EACH contribute about 20 percent of China's fine particle pollution (or "PM2.5" – bits of matter small enough to penetrate into the lungs). Multiply each person's power and transport needs by billions of people, add transport of pollution from neighboring cities and chemistry in the atmosphere (which forms even more particles), and you've got one big mess. Air stagnation (due to inversions or mountain ranges, etc.) also usually plays a role in these extreme episodes. 

I did a field study in Guangzhou, China (south of Beijing) where the air pollution was so severe that I thought, at first, that my air quality instrument was broken because the readings were so high. I could barely see 100 yards down the road.

Here in the States, most people live under the assumption our air is clean and safe. Is this always true? If not, where have you seen concerning results in the quality of the air?

In many ways, the U.S. is an air quality success story. U.S. smog has been significantly reduced by the Clean Air Act and regulations on coal, vehicle, and industrial emissions and most of our cities have average particle amounts under the "danger limit." 

However, many large U.S. cities still have relatively frequent episodes with dangerous levels of particulate matter and ozone (and other pollutants); according to the American Lung Association, more that half of Americans are exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution. L.A., San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Philly, New York, etc. top the dirty list. 

More importantly, pollutants tend to get concentrated in the corridors between tall buildings, putting street-level pollution in many downtown areas higher than might be measured at a rooftop or suburban monitoring station and more often into the "danger zone." City dwellers should choose routes that avoid these street canyons. Even a few blocks into the 'burbs can result in lower exposure.

Ravenswood Generating Station in the morning in New York. The power plant uses natural gas, fuel oil and kerosene to power its boilers. Felix Lipov /

What can everyday Americans do to help ensure the air around them is safer? Where are good places to live if you are concerned about healthy air?

Fossil fuel power (including coal), vehicles, and industry are the biggest sources of air pollution (and carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming). We can all advocate for renewable energy, public transport, and localized economies (to reduce shipping); in addition to being sustainable, "greener" technologies are rapidly becoming comparable to or cheaper than fossil-fuel-heavy techniques in cost. Use your market power to support "green' companies." When voting, keep in mind the human health and environmental costs of business as usual: China fueled huge economic growth with coal power and unchecked industry, but now her people are paying the price.

If you're not an activist, that's OK: car pool, plant trees, buy local food and products whenever possible, and teach your children to understand and value our natural resources.

Rural areas upwind of major cities tend to be cleanest; I live in a small mountain town in Colorado where the air pollution is so low, we often cannot detect it. In a city, pick a suburb upwind of the downtown area or, at least, a street off the "main drag."

Anything else you'd like to add?

On the ground in Guangzhou, the people I met were sick – constantly coughing, with watery eyes – and angry and disempowered. It took me about a day to start feeling the effects myself: itchy eyes, fatigue, constant coughing. This type of environmental crisis is a result of prioritizing short-term profit over long-term profit, health, and sustainability. Fossil fuels are cheap, when you don't factor in cleaning up after them, and powerful: there is no doubt that their use has profited and increased the standard of living for much of the world's population. 

But here we come to the tipping point: how many cities must be overcome by clouds of unbreathable smog, how many people have to die, how many billions extra must we spend on health care before the costs outweigh the profits? And not just morally – financially as well. This is such a hard issue, because it's also class-driven: closing polluting factories costs jobs in the short term, which we all need just to survive day-to-day. Retro-fitting power plants costs money, too, as does building new infrastructure of every kind. 

We have difficult choices to make: we can choose the easy way now, make short-term profits, and live out our retirements blanketed in smog, desperately fighting over whatever oil and land and air are left. 

Or we can make the hard, wise choice: Build new energy and transport infrastructure now for cleaner, cheaper, more abundant energy in the future. Reduce our individual consumption and travel, and patronize green companies. It's too late for many in China. But the U.S. has access to profitable, sustainable energy, transport, and industrial technology that we can choose right now. I hope we stand on the side of hard work, sustainable profits, abundant energy, and a healthy environment for everyone.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Cover photo: Shutterstock.

View related content below:


Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest news and exclusive updates.