We might have to rephrase Duke Ellington’s famous line. In this case, the gray skies are thick, man-made clouds over the industrial city of Shenyang, China.
When we moved here, we knew we would see and experience pollution as never before. This month, when the chest cold and Darth Vader voice were upon me, I couldn’t blame it all on the tiny, dirty hands at school. I learned more about AQI, the Air Quality Index. I found new websites, like http://www.airnow.gov/ and http://www.aqicn.info/?city=Shenyang. I felt a burning sensation when I took my first breaths on these cold January mornings, and I knew it wasn’t just because of the zero degree (F) temperatures.
For starters, the Air Quality Index is what you probably think it is. It’s a simple number derived from a not so simple calculation of fine particulate matter, carbon monoxide and other things in the air. Beijing, about 700km south of here, has gotten a lot of press this month due to the AQI levels over 800. Current AQI in Greenville/Spartanburg, South Carolina – 40. Los Angeles – 32. Atlanta – 58. Bakersfield, California, often ranked as one of the top polluted cities in the US – 105. This morning in Shenyang, 462. By 1:00pm, it had risen to 492.
Type “pollution in China” into Google and take your pick of articles. On January 14, a CBS News article reported that admissions to Beijing hospitals had risen 30% because of breathing and respiratory difficulties. A Huffington Post article from days ago told us what we already know, that pollution levels in the capital city over 500 are not uncommon. It was in that article I read that the WHO recommends healthy levels are no higher than 20.
Shenyang has always been an industrial city. It was part of Mao’s industrialization plan in China. There is a reason why 7.5 million people live here and it isn’t the weather. It’s an employment base built on the success of factories. It isn’t that the city and the province aren’t doing anything to curb pollution. The locals say it was much worse 10 years ago. Imagine it. The government has invested more than $9 billion (USD) to reverse the effects. Much of the new construction sites use ground heat pump systems rather than the smoke dust and sulfur dioxide friendly combo we get from coal. (http://www.liaoning-gateway.com/gateway/news/295/2465795.shtml) But the coal is still here. You can see it in piles and you see it in the air.
Of course, there is this other problem of what the India Times calls “vehicular density”. In Shenyang, 400 new license plates are registered every day. That was the case when we moved here 2.5 years ago, and it is still the case today. About 14,000 new cars each year. And we aren’t talking about the Nissan Leaf.
I read an article last week that was published a few years ago, and I could have sworn the writer had never even been here. Turns out she had and she was lucky enough to see blue skies during her short visit. http://e360.yale.edu/feature/shenyang_a_once-polluted_china_city_is_turning_from_gray_to_green/2454/ She wrote, “No longer standing are Tiexi’s iconic smokestacks and its blocks of red-brick worker dormitories.” Those smokestacks just aren’t standing in the same place anymore. Industrial Tiexi has moved 12km outside the city. And the dormitories are still wide-spread, now blue-roofed metal structures that go up and down like carnival rides.
China has managed their population, industrialization and economic growth in many ways. Some of those ways have been successful. Some would argue that a 462 AQI is better than it used to be. Maybe. I can only hope it will be even better tomorrow.