STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This is the first day of the Lunar New Year and in China, where they have the Chinese New Year, people are ringing in the Year of the Horse a little differently than they have in the past. Especially in the eastern part of the country, air pollution is so bad that many Chinese are toning down their annual fireworks for the sake of their lungs.

NPR's Frank Langfitt has the story from Shanghai.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Shen Bingling used to celebrate New Year's by wheeling a luggage cart full of fireworks on to a street and joining the neighbors in igniting a frenzy of pyrotechnics. Chunks of burned paper would rain down, and the air would fill with clouds that smelled of sulfur. It sounded a lot like this.

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LANGFITT: Shen, who works as a doorman in a downtown apartment building, says he wouldn't dream of doing something like that today.

SHEN BINGLING: (Through translator) According to our Chinese people's tradition, to have good fortune you should set off fireworks. But for the sake of the air now, you shouldn't.

LANGFITT: In December, Shanghai was hit with record-breaking, toxic smog. And that appears to have dramatically changed minds here. According to a survey by the Shanghai Bureau of Statistics, more than 85 percent of citizens say they won't buy fireworks during this holiday.

For Julia Liu, a teacher in the city's financial district, the memories of last year's smog are fresh and awful.

JULIA LIU: (Through translator) Every morning, when I got out of bed and went outside, I'd see that the air was gray and yellow. It put me in a bad mood. My throat was pretty dry. There's probably no direct health effect now, but I worry that 10 or 20 years from now, it might have an impact.

LANGFITT: Liu is 34, and she grew up lighting fireworks in China's frigid northeast. This year, she cut her family's fireworks budget.

LIU: (Through translator) I think if everyone can reduce the amount of fireworks they set off, that can have really benefit our air quality. But I can't completely give up fireworks because I have a child. So if he doesn't set off fireworks, he'll feel very disappointed.

LANGFITT: Chinese light off fireworks this time of year to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. Even with pollution rising to hazardous levels yesterday, some people felt compelled by custom or nostalgia.

Li Mei, a retired cigarette factory worker who wore a plaid surgical mask, pulled up to a sidewalk stand in a red scooter and bought a strand of firecrackers. She hadn't bought any since her dad died three years ago.

LI MEI: (Through translator) Every year, my heart was very sad. I really missed him. This year, my heart is much better. So I'm going to buy fireworks and light them off.

LANGFITT: Sales were slow at some fireworks stalls yesterday. But by early afternoon, Zhang Pengfei had sold more than $6,000 worth from the folding tables in front of his tea house. His best-seller: a string of 5,000 firecrackers for about $35.

ZHANG PENGFEI: (Through translator) This is a tradition that is passed down for 5,000 years. It's emphatically not something you can just change in one or two years. Actually, I sell fireworks myself but I don't often light them off because it really has an impact on the environment.

LANGFITT: The government acknowledges that solving China's air pollution problem will take a long time. Even though Zhang did well this season, he's not optimistic about sales in the years to come. I think in the future, this business is not going to go well, he tells me, because more and more people won't be willing to light fireworks.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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