In the last year I’ve been conducting an involuntary experiment: finding the effects of pollution on my brain. Beijing has provided the perfect setting for this, giving me plenty of opportunities to observe the nuances of having enough pm 2.5 particles roaming around in my lungs. If you don’t know what pm 2.5 particles are then you probably live in a beautiful fantasy world where you can see the sky on a clear day and buildings are not shrouded in mist half of the time, and by “fantasy world” I mean anywhere but China. Sometimes I have trouble believing I ever lived in such a place.
The last three months have been particularly enlightening. We have had an air quality index (aqi) of 200 for weeks on end: just so you get an idea, frequent exposure to anything above 20 is considered harmful and has long-term effects on your health. I haven’t seen a blue sky since, well, I really don’t remember. But it was long ago. This doesn’t mean it was cloudy or foggy: most days it was bloody hot. It was just smoggy.
People in Beijing say that pollution accumulates when there’s not enough wind or when it doesn’t rain. Surprisingly, though, these last months we’ve had plenty of wind and thunderstorms, which haven’t lowered the pollution index one bit. I work in a school and our students aren’t allowed to go out if the index is above 180. We’ve had them in almost every day for the last 2 months. Of course, the children are going wild. So are the adults.
Today, though, things are different. The pollution index is only 60 and I can see the sky. It is exhilarating. It almost reminds me of what it was like to have a life, to be able to enjoy a walk in the park or just an evening in an outdoor restaurant. Unfortunately, the blue sky only lasted for 2 hours and now it’s gray again, though this time it’s clouds. At least I can see the buildings in front of me without the haze, which is kind of nice.
Anyway, the effects on my brain. First, I need to say I’m a light weight, which means stockier people will probably not be as affected. I’ve also had plenty of stomach problems caused by the amazing variety of bacteria and protozoa present in the city’s restaurants’ food, which has contributed to weakening my immune system and probably lowered my IQ a good 20 points since I came to live here. I am not joking: sometimes when I see stuff I wrote, say, 5 years ago, I can barely understand it, let alone produce something of the same quality. My brain is perpetually shrouded in mist.
Mist or not, I have observed a correlation between high pollution at night and not sleeping well. With the same number of hours, sleeping when the air is bad will usually lead to restless dreams and a pretty bad morning. It will also cause frequent headaches and dry eyes. When exercising in pollution, you can expect to experience mental fog for the rest of the day. I have checked this by biking to work with and without a mask on days where the AQI was over 200. The difference was spectacular and would go from waking up fresh to spending the rest of the day unable to write anything or focus on the simplest tasks.
When the pollution is extremely high (around 300 or more; this year we got to 700, which was literally off the charts) its effects are noticeable even indoors. When it’s only 200, spending 5 hours outside will make your lungs feel like you smoked a packet of cigarettes; there is a funny, ticklish feeling when you take a deep breath.
The pollution can be smelled and touched. It has a burnt metal tinge to it though, after a while, it becomes hard to notice. You only realize how bad it is if you wear a mask and then you take it off. This sometimes happens even at home: the smog gets in despite the filters and the fact that our windows are always closed. Of course, the inability to ventilate inside causes a build-up of CO2 and an absence of oxygen, which in turn will make everyone dizzy and sleepy in almost any interior setting. But the alternative is worse.
When I say pollution can be touched I mean that, after around 20 seconds outside, you’ll start noticing a layer of dust has deposited on your hands and your face. In fact, rubbing your eyes will very likely cause a persistent itch that will only fade when adding water and soap. Pollution and dust will gather on any device, which makes computers extremely short-lived. Bikes need constant maintenance, especially if parked outside.
The pollution doesn’t live only in the air. There is plenty of lead to go around, as it and other heavy metals can be found in spades in your vegetables. Even western brands such as Lipton lower their standards for the Chinese market, where their tea was found last year to contain high amounts of pesticides, some of which were neurotoxins. You can also find plenty of lead in yoghurts and pills, since they’re made with gelatin. Apparently, using industrial gelatin (made with old shoes, for instance) is cheaper. A study last year found more than 50% percent of all capsules for medicine to be made with the latter. The same applied to ice-cream, yoghurt and soft drinks.
Summarizing, I recommend anyone with a scientific attitude and a healthy dose of curiosity to come to Beijing and try these things out for themselves. They will find the city a rich source of information on the dangers of air, water and food pollution and will experience first-hand the advantages of de-regulation.
Me, I’m going to enjoy my day of clean air while it lasts and brace myself for the next two weeks of misery.