Clean Air A 'Luxury' In Beijing's Pollution Zone For more than half of the past 60 days, the air pollution in the Chinese capital has hit levels hazardous to human health. Experts estimate long-term exposure to such pollution could reduce life expectancy by as much as five years. NPR's Louisa Lim describes what it's like living in the city.
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Clean Air A 'Luxury' In Beijing's Pollution Zone

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Clean Air A 'Luxury' In Beijing's Pollution Zone

Clean Air A 'Luxury' In Beijing's Pollution Zone

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In Beijing, concern is growing about the veil of pollution caused by coal-fired power plants and vehicle emissions. For more than half of the last 60 days, the air pollution there has hit levels hazardous to human health. That is according to the monitoring system at the U.S. embassy. The official Chinese statistics come from measuring only large particles, widely seen as producing less reliable information. In this postcard from the Chinese capital, NPR's Louisa Lim - who has two small children - describes family life in the pollution zone.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: I've just got up, and the first thing I do in the mornings is I look out the window to see how polluted it is. And today, I have to say it's pretty disgusting. There's a kind of white haze, which is hanging in the air, shrouding everything with mist.

And I have an app which I normally check first thing in the morning. It's linked to the air pollution monitor at the U.S. embassy. Oh no, today is 325 on the air pollution index. That's officially hazardous to human health. This is going to be a big problem today. My six-year-old has a football match.

DANIEL FENG: I want my Cheerios.

LIM: Listen, you may not be able to go to your football today.

EVE FENG: Why then?

LIM: Look how polluted it is outside.

FENG: (unintelligible)

LIM: Listen, we'll check what the pollution level is before football. And if it's dangerous then you can't go. OK?

FENG: I have got a very super-good idea: Put your pollution mask on, mummy.

FENG: No, put it on me and I'll play with it on.

LIM: Serious, you'll play with a facemask on?

FENG: Yeah.



LIM: Now it's afternoon, and the air pollution index is over 400. So even sitting outside to watch football seems foolhardy. So the kids are playing computer games at home, instead of running around outside. All this time that they're spending inside is kind of making me wonder what it is they're breathing inside our apartment. So, I think it's time to get the experts in.

CHRIS BUCKLEY: I'm Chris, Chris Buckley. I have a business in Beijing, selling air purifiers.

LIM: So you've brought this equipment with you.

BUCKLEY: It measures the number of particles in the air at different size ranges.

LIM: Should we find out how - now I'm really scared of this figure.




BUCKLEY: So I just - so outside, I was getting 314 micrograms. And indoors, I've got 208 micrograms.

LIM: You're telling me that the level of air pollution inside is five times what the U.S. EPA would consider average?

BUCKLEY: A safe average, yes. As we speak...


BUCKLEY: ...we're both breathing air which the EPA would say was not good.

LIM: That's really scary.

BUCKLEY: Yeah, it is. Yeah, welcome to Beijing.

LIM: Well, to find out more about the long-term impact of pollution, I called Avraham Ebenstein from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Together with Chinese colleagues, he's been looking at the different life expectancy rates north and south of the Huai River. The government provides heating, mainly coal-powered heating, north of the river but not south, making the pollution much worse. I want to know what they found.

PROFESSOR AVRAHAM EBENSTEIN: It's actually kind of funny, because the former premier of China was southern resident and he was concerned about moving to the north. And he said: If I move to Beijing, I will lose five years of life expectancy, which is astoundingly close to the estimates that we observe. Our estimate is about five to six years of foregone life expectancy over the long haul, of living in Beijing, relative to southern cities.

LIM: Hold on a minute. Your research was based on data from the 1980s. I mean how relevant is that for us now?

EBENSTEIN: The answer is we don't know. On the one hand, maybe the air pollution isn't as bad now as it was before, and those people lost five years. But since you're going to have less of a chance of getting other kinds of illnesses, if you're exposed to air pollution now, as a relative share of the health cost to you, it could still be a really big factor. It could still have a really large impact of life expectancy.


LIM: So how to protect yourself from the very air that you breathe? We end up shuttling our kids by car, from one indoor play place to another, minimizing their time outside. Until now, our strategy has been denial, pretending it wasn't really that bad. That's no longer an option.

We don't know what living here will cost us in health terms. But the immediate cost to us of doing this story has been almost $3,000 in new air purifiers, an option that's out of reach for most Beijingers.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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