Life in a toxic country


This is terrifying. I wanted to visit China, but if I can’t breathe the air or eat the food?

To be fair, with most exposures like this, the risks are for people who live there, in the thick of it, every day. They’re exposures and risks that build up over time. A tourist probably wouldn’t have to be nearly as concerned as somebody who lived there for years.

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Not too long ago I read “The Sheep Look Up” by John Brunner.


It’s a bit less scary today than when it was written 40 years ago… until you think about China and other developing nations.

BTW current republican budget proposals would cut EPA funding 34%.

Oh, and I read an article by this guy like a year ago. Can’t help but think he is A) recklessly endangering his daughter or B) exaggerating terribly. I actually think it’s more A than B. His wife needs to take that baby and leave that country. If he thinks his work is important enough that he has to stay there it is important enough to stay alone.


The first year I came to China, I ran the Great Wall Marathon. The second year I was part of a cycling team that would train by the river (the cleanest place inside the city) twice a day, but I had to stop as the 10 minute commute to the river took 30 minutes to recover from. This January the PM 2.5 level reached 969 at one point, and regularly exceeded 800 for 3-4 weeks. Our 3 year old son had pneumonia, bronchitis and exacerbated asthma, and we were told by the doctor that he might not survive another winter in the city. (It’s worth noting that his lung problems weren’t all due to pollution; he already had problems with his lungs before coming to us). We hadn’t finished the adoption process by that point, but we managed to leave about two months after we had all the documents. By this point I had stopped doing almost any exercise outside, and pretty much just stuck to swimming as even using my stationary bike indoors was affecting my own asthma. We had two air purifiers running 24/7 which we would clean every couple of months. You would need to thoroughly wash the filters 3-4 times to get most of the dust out. Since coming to Kansas three weeks ago I’ve started cycling again and take the kids out to the playground every day. All of my family members look visibly healthier.

Honestly, if it weren’t for the health problems in China, I would rather be there than most other places. Right now though, it feels a bit like Afghanistan - it’s a really interesting country with some great people, and it would be a great place to live if it weren’t for a couple of really good reasons. When you first get off the plane on leaving China, you really feel like it’s the first time in a while that you’ve actually been able to breathe freely.

@Aloisius I would agree with Maggie though, the worst time for pollution in the north seems to be in the winter when they use coal to heat all of the apartments and the polluted air just stays around without any rain, snow or wind to clear it away. Spring to fall is much better, and you’ll get long periods of time when the PM 2.5 is below 50 even in big cities for significant parts of the day. I would stay away from large cities if you’re worried about the air quality, as there are many places where pollution is a small fraction of what you’ll see in Beijing. You can check the AQI map for an idea of the current conditions:


The conspiracy nut in me thinks that the heinous pollution levels are partially on purpose in China. One thing I’ve wondered for a long time now is what the country is going to do when the one child policy meets up with retirement age to make the US social security crisis look like lost lunch money. However, if few people make it to old age thanks to the horrible pollution and terrible working conditions, this won’t be a problem and China can continue to tell themselves that they’re “winning” at the global economy because their exports are so much higher than their imports.

Then again, people are only going to tolerate this for so long. Eventually China will have to adopt proper environmental standards to avoid riots in the streets and potentially government turnovers. At that point they’re going to realize that cleanup operations are much much more expensive than containing the pollution in the first place.

The extremity of the situation does bring out that kind of thingking in anyone, but we can also just attribute the issue to China being run by technocrats. A technocracy can do a very good job picking a particular goal and accomplishing it, but technocracy tends to blind itself to all other considerations. The US spent 5 years operating as a technocracy with the goal of winning World War Two. But it did cost us. The nuclear waste mess in Hanford, WA is one result. Another is a corner of Oklahoma that is utterly uninhabitable becuase of lead mining. Thankfully, we were still a democracy at the time, so the costs weren’t as horrific as what we’re seeing in China: a technocracy that has decided to accomplish industrial growth at all costs.

I grew up in a toxic part of my country. You’d never know it was toxic. The knowledge of it’s toxicity was something that seeped into your consciousness over a matter of decades. I remember as a teen, watching tourists drink the water from the natural springs. My friends and I would look at each other but not say anything. It hadn’t been five years since we’d stopped drinking it ourselves. A friend told me he hadn’t noticed anything abnormal until he met people at university, people from other places, who didn’t really know anyone who had died of cancer. He realised he didn’t know anyone who hadn’t died of cancer. It’s chemicals in the water. Dioxin. PCBs. That’s what comes to mind. When a friend’s father died of cancer, her cousin, who was an insurance agent, felt obliged to show her the cancer map. Our part of the country was a big red blotch. That’s the only visible evidence one is going to get. The river looks beautiful. There’s no fish and no seaweed clouding the water. If you travel above the falls, where tourists tend not to go, there is a chemical plant on the other side of the river that stretches as far as you can see. You can park and get existential on a summer night with the windows down looking at the twinkling lights. If you investigated a little, you’d find there were chemical plants dotted around the area on both sides of the border. The primary geographical feature of the area is shale. In the fifties they buried a lot of toxic waste in barrels and concrete that cracked and leaked, and the chemicals were washed through the shale into the river. On the other side of the river, a suburb was built on top of one of the toxic waste dumps. At one point they erected snow fence around noted ‘hot spots’ in the neighbourhood. Ultimately, it was evacuated. Ghost suburbia. None of the tourists would ever dream they were standing in a toxic mist. They wouldn’t notice the monitoring station run by the university. We used to swim in the river. All summer, every summer. We are all going to die of cancer at some point. A childhood friend was twelve. Most of us will be old. Because it’s international, and you can’t prove any causal connection, and because small bits of evidence are reported incidentally over decades - and because the other main industry is tourism - it’s like the toxicity doesn’t even exist. You’d never imagine. It’s really a very lovely area.

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At my elementary school we were not allowed to drink the tap water. We had bottled water instead. The story was that the well water was contaminated by stuff from the farms. I lived about a mile from the school. No one told us not to drink our well water. I always wondered if the school district was over-reacting or if our well water was contaminated, but no one was telling us.

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