Zero to Twenty-Six

Zero to Twenty-Six running blog: Beijing's poison air

Zero to Twenty-Six running blog: Beijing's poison air

I mentioned in my first post that I'll be writing from time to time about life in China (and it's adverse health effects). I'm waiting on the results from my physical before I start a running regimen, so let's talk about what was, by a wide margin, my least favorite thing about living in Beijing: Smog.

When my first flight to Beijing pulled into the terminal all the way back in July 2011, they depressurized the cabin, as they’ll do. I had never realized they do this. When you land in Beijing, however, it becomes abundantly clear because smog comes flooding in through the vents.

The problem was I didn’t know it was smog.

My first reaction - rooted partly in the facts I’d slept about 10 combined hours the previous week and that my wife and I had just finished a “24" marathon - was that terrorists had somehow gained access to the plane and released Centox VX nerve gas into the air supply.

It was so thick, the very front of the plane was somewhat obscured, and you could actually see it misting in. It was, of course, not nerve gas - just normal, legal poison.

A woman from HR at my new job escorted me back to our home and I asked her about the smog. She said it had improved dramatically in the preceding few years. Officials planted a thick ring of trees around the city to keep smog levels down in the years leading up to the 2008 Olympics.

She’s a very sweet lady, and I believe her. But … well, you can see the picture at the top of this post. That was worse than an average day, but by no means as bad as it gets. 

Again - that's not fog nor clouds nor God’s righteous judgment. It’s just pure poison.

Maybe it has improved since 2008. From what I’ve seen, though, it became much worse in my two years. If you see blue sky twice a week, it’s a good week. The government actually keeps track of what they call “blue sky days." Their definition - a patch of blue sky is visible at some point, somewhere in the vicinity of Beijing, once during the course of the day - is assuredly different from yours or mine. 

Over the course of my time as a sports reporter in China, I semi-regularly proposed the idea that I could write a story examining the impact smog had on athletes’ decisions to play in China. Being in the employ of a state-run newspaper, my bosses always politely declined.

NFL running back Reggie Bush was in Beijing for a promotional Super Bowl event last winter. When I interviewed him, he told me he thought the airport was on fire when he landed.

I will say this: The Williams sisters never played in the China Open, one of the marquee non-Grand Slam events, during my time there. I really doubt that it’s a coincidence that both years when I attended, it looked like this.

I do know this: There’s a scale that measures smog levels. Major American cities will usually be under 50, even on a bad day. Anything over 100 is cause for a bit of alarm. Above 150, you probably shouldn’t exercise. This scale is kind of like the Richter scale, in that it increases exponentially, so 200 is more than double 100, for instance.

I’m not sure what level it has to reach, but some days, they’ll just cancel PE at all the schools to keep the kids from, you know, dying of smog. Walking a few blocks, you find yourself out of breath.

I spent a month back in the U.S. last Christmas. It was my first trip home in 18 months. The day before I arrived back in Beijing, CNN producer Steven Jiang (I don’t know him, for the record) tweeted this horrifying picture that, shall we say, expedited our decision to attempt to return home. These are two shots with the exact same backdrop - one on a clear day, one on a day when smog reached a new record, in the 700s.

Four or five days a week, there’s a general haze hanging in the air. But one or two days a week … imagine an extremely foggy day on the Oregon coast. Now imagine that instead of breathing clean ocean air, you’re breathing pure poison.

About a year in, my wife went to the gym for a half hour on a particularly smoggy day. She threw up when she got home.

I’ve got more to say on smog, so I’ll probably do another post down the road at some point. But for now, just realize it’s a big part of the reason I didn’t feel as worried as I otherwise might have about our next installment: smoking.