By Hannah Beech
December 8, 2015

Last year, my family fled Beijing. We joined a growing exodus of pollution refugees who decamped for Shanghai, where the air, while hardly pleasant by global standards, is far more breathable than the fumes of the Chinese capital. Five other kids from one of my children’s classes also moved southward. Since relocating to Shanghai, our boys have never worn their tiny teddy-bear-decorated face masks, designed to protect their lungs from Beijing’s occasional airport-smoking-lounge air. This year, they have only had one soccer match canceled because of air pollution; in Beijing, dozens of school recesses were idled indoors, the kids pacing hallways like caged lab rats. An international study published this year found that 1.4 million premature deaths are attributable each year to China’s foul air.

On Tuesday in Shanghai, I awoke to sunlight streaming in my window. Meanwhile, in Beijing, a city of 20 million-plus people was locked down in its first-ever pollution “red alert.” The government ordered schools to close and construction sites to halt work until Thursday. Cars, a significant contributor to China’s air pollution, are being forced to drive on alternate days, based on even or odd license plates. Municipal authorities even banned the use of outdoor barbecues and fireworks, although such bursts of smoke hardly compare to the toll exacted by coal-based industry, heating and vehicle emissions.

In fact, just days before Beijing’s inaugural red alert, conditions had been far grimmer. With a 530,000-sq-km miasma blanketing northern China for days, the authorities only designated an orange warning, the second highest level in a four-tier pollution index. Daytime visibility darkened to dusklike conditions, shadows swathing skyscrapers. On Nov. 30, the U.S. embassy’s monitor of PM2.5 particulate matter — tiny but deadly grime that invades lungs — recorded a toxic intensity almost 40 times more than what the World Health Organization considers safe to breathe.

Beijing authorities say that the air has been considerably cleaner this year than last. At the climate conference currently taking place in Paris, China, now the world’s largest emitter, has vowed to cut its carbon emissions by reducing coal usage. But residents of northern China are bracing for what many fear will be another noxious winter. Meanwhile, one Chinese performance artist has responded to the so-called airpocalypse by vacuuming up Beijing air and producing a brick of smog. And I, with the freedom to move to Shanghai, can only feel sympathy for my friends up north whose every breath brings poison into their bodies.

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