Under The Dome – The Devastating Truth About China’s Smog and What We Can Learn


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A stark video, ‘Under the Dome’ documenting China’s dangerously high levels of air pollution has spread rapidly across the Globe.

Chai Jing, a former state television presenter gives her personal account of living in a smog filled city, weaving in scientific evidence and shocking images for maximum impact. The video can be watched here, although please note that English subtitles are still in process.

Ma Jun, a well known Chinese Environmental specialist describes the documentary as “one of the most important pieces of public awareness of all time by the Chinese media.” He said, “It is powerful because it is motivated by a personal story and has got the feelings that people can relate to. It also holds to the standards of investigative journalism, it is properly vetted on the scientific and technology side, it is a powerful combination.

Jing states that she only awakened to the true horror of living with such high levels of air pollution when she learned that she was pregnant. “I didn’t wear a mask in polluted days before. After holding a new life in my hands, I started to worry about the air quality.”

Since her birth Jing has felt forced to keep her child indoors “like a prisoner” for days on end when the pollution levels are just too high.

The documentary shows a clip of Jing interviewing a 6 year old child in 2004. The child states that she has never seen stars, nor clouds, but has seen a blue sky once. The realisation that this could be the experience of her own daughter moved Jing to learn more about the smog hanging over China and spread the word about what needs to be done to improve the quality of life there.

What is Smog?

In Beijing in 2014, 46 photographers recorded images of the sky in for 40 consecutive days. The results as shown in the video are astonishing, some days buildings are barely visible through the clouds of pollution.

Still from Under the Dome
Still from Under the Dome

Despite this, smog is a largely ‘invisible enemy’, the particles of pollution are far too small to see with the human eye. Jing took a filter designed to collect these tiny ‘PM2.5’ (particulate matter) molecules with her as she went about her normal day for 24 hours. She then had the filter analysed to find out exactly what had been in the air around her.

It was measured that there were 305.91 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metres. The World Health Organisation’s standard for maximum PM2.5 per day is 2.5!

The filter also showed 15 carcinogens, including the particularly worrying benzopyrene – at a staggering 14 times the Chinese government’s legal level.

It is important to remember that this sample was taken from an average city in Beijing, not an industrial area. No chimneys or factories nearby.

Jing’s findings are echoed in an article (Barely) living in smog: China and air pollution, published by The Lancet.

There are few cities in the world where the first thing you do on waking is check the air quality app on your mobile phone—even before switching off the alarm. Beijing is such a city. On Feb 25, Beijing had been shrouded in heavy smog and hazardous levels of respirable fine particulate matter (PM2·5) for 6 consecutive days. That morning the PM2·5 level read 383 μg/m3, which is 15 times the recommended safe WHO limit (25 μg/m3 for 24-h PM2·5), but not the worst reported in a week when levels soared to 500 μg/m3.

Smog – Implications on Health

Daily exposure to high levels of air pollution like this has a devastating impact on respiratory and cardiovascular health. The carcinogens block the alveoli in our lungs making breathing difficult, they break down the immune system and pass easily through internal membranes to enter the blood stream, damaging the blood vessels and heart.

The documentary shows surgery of a lung cancer patient; doctors remove many blackened lymph nodes, as you might expect to see in a smoker. The patient had never smoked in their life. PM2.5 accumulates gradually in the body, so those suffering with cancer now would have been exposed to air pollution for years already. Over the last 30 years the lung cancer death rate has increased by 465% in China. While smoking and ageing are major factors, smog definitely plays a big part.

Unsurprisingly, a World Health Organization report showed that 40 percent of the 7 million people killed by air pollution globally in 2012 lived in China. The most vulnerable in the population are children and the elderly.

Getty Images - David Barrie
Getty Images – David Barrie

China is seeing infants that have never been outsid hospitalised with pneumonia, with doctors diagnosing ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’ because there is no direct evidence to prove that the air pollution is to blame. Parents in China are confused about whether they should expose their children to the air pollution to help them to adapt to it, but there is no research to suggest that they will adapt. Edward Avol a professor at the University of Southern California advises that a child is injured each time they are exposed.

Maria Neira, director of the WHO’s department for public health, environmental and social determinants of health said “Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution. The evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”

Where Does Smog Come From?

Still from Under the Dome
Still from Under the Dome

Jing lists the individual components of the smog that is measured across China. They include particulate matter resulting  from coal combustion, gas combustion, biomass burning, exhaust emissions, manufacturing, fertiliser and dust. Of this, fossil fuel combustion is 60%. The problem is further exacerbated as the chemicals react together in the atmosphere. They do not simply diffuse, but rather ‘absorb, attach, collide and agglomerate’. The chemical reactions between the particulate matter increases the toxicity of the air.

China has had heavy consumption of low-grade coal and gas due to their relatively recent explosion into industrialisation. This journal published in The Lancet documents the effects of globalisation on China’s environmental health.

As one of the most rapidly growing countries and the largest energy consumer in the world, environmental pollution in China, including that of air, water, and land, puts its people at risk of many acute and chronic diseases.Recent reports that more than half of China’s groundwater is polluted, and of so-called cancer villages where increased incidence of cancer might be due to industrially polluted water along the Huai river, have sparked public outcries. In today’s global economy, products are manufactured and traded around the world.

The Chinese government has been slow in publishing data that showed the dangers of air pollution, they have known about it for decades, naming it as ‘fog’ in the media. They took time to regulate polluters and create legal levels of PM2.5. Sadly, from Jing’s own data these regulations are not being enforced. So despite clear evidence demonstrating the origins of the smog across China, there are no controls in place to reduce it.

What Can We Learn?

The first thing is to recognise that this is a Global issue, air and water does is a resource shared across the World. Jing gave an interview following the release of the documentary where she gave her own suggestions on moving forward from the crisis:

“Environmental protection and economic development are not in conflict. Environmental protection is not a burden but a source for innovation. It can increase competition, create jobs and lifts the economy.”

The government must rigidly enforce laws to ensure standard levels are adhered to, while supporting industry to find innovative methods of sourcing energy. The fact that businesses in fields of pollutant treatment saw huge rises in the price of their shares following the release of this video show that the market is sensitive to this issue.

In addition, seeing that the video has not been silenced by the Chinese government, which tends to censor anything that shows them in a less than favourable light, is another positive factor. It suggests that something will be done about the problem.

China is a major producer of goods that are used worldwide, so changing the way that we outsource manufacturing, as well as supporting China’s efforts to change current use of energy would be useful steps to take.

What are your thoughts? Is it not our problem? Do you have suggestions on turning the tide on air pollution? We love hearing from you.

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  1. One thing I’ve come to realize, if THEY have it in their water, we have it in ours. If they have it in their air, we have it in ours.
    The Fukishima: we have it in our water too. We are all in this together. There is no separation.

  2. We are to blame for their levels of pollution as much as they are because the companies that moved their manufacturing to China and India did so to avoid the regulations imposed on them in the US. We are so blind to think that living on a spinning planet will not bring the toxins back to us no matter how far away from us they start.

    1. Wholeheartedly agree! They are busy manufacturing to keep up with our endless demands for products. Thanks for commenting Lois.

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