In my nearly two years of living in the smog-filled Chinese capital, a misled sense of good luck and invincibility led me to rarely wear a mask in the open or switch on my air purifier at home.
Beijing’s notorious air pollution is known to be a slow killer by planting seeds of lung cancer, but what you don’t see won’t hurt you, I thought. Also, not everyone, definitely not me, will succumb to the disease, right?
But a near-accident on a Beijing highway this Wednesday, due to a bout of heavy smog in the capital and the poor visibility it caused, has shown me how China’s air pollution can be deadly in other ways – and instantly too.
I had hired a driver to take me from Beijing to a city located about three hours’ drive away in the nearby Hebei province, on a reporting trip.
As we drove southwards on the Beijing-Kaifeng highway, smog began to envelop the area, with visibility dipping to below 100 metres, making it near-impossible to see the cars ahead of us.
Naturally, the driver kept a longer safety distance from the cars ahead, switched on the hazard lights and drove at a comfortable, slow speed. But still, accidents took place that could have killed or at least hurt us.
Out of the blue, we heard a loud clang coming through the opaque smog in front of us and, almost immediately after, saw the flashing brake lights of the vehicle ahead.
In a split second, the driver cocked his head to the right to check the right side-mirror and then swerved the car into the next lane to avoid hitting the car in front. Thankfully, there were no cars there or behind us or we might have been hit.
But others weren’t as lucky. Moments later, the sound of a crash came from our rear, signalling that another car had failed to stop in time and another collision had taken place.
As we filtered to the right shoulder lane and inched forward cautiously, it became clear that a major pile-up had occurred ahead of us, causing massive jams stretching over 5km and lasting over three hours. At one point, I got out of the car and took photos of the vehicles that were involved in collisions. Even at a conservative estimate, there were at least 30 affected cars, with some having crashed straight into huge trucks.
There were no news reports of the pile-up or about the casualties though several ambulances arrived by using the highway in the opposite direction.
The clogged road left many drivers and passengers with little choice but to relieve themselves by the side of the road in the sub-zero cold. Women banded together to provide cover while a man even took a dump.
Chats with several drivers involved in a crash or a near-collision revealed that many found it almost impossible to stop in time.
The experience has not only provided me with a lesson on safe driving in poor conditions. It also underscored to me the urgency for China of stepping up efforts against air pollution, for it risks losing expatriates and even its own citizens to foreign shores, regardless of how attractive it is to work and live in the world’s No 2 economy and rising superpower.
As it is, many Chinese media reports show that urbanites are ditching the smoggy first-tier cities despite the cushy jobs available there and heading instead for smaller towns like Dali in southwestern Yunnan province, for fresher air and blue skies.
A report by the China Daily last month on the severe smog in Shanghai quoted the general manager of the Shanghai office of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China as saying: “While members leave for all sorts of reasons, we inevitably hear nearly every time that one of the contributing reasons is the air pollution.”
A worsening smog problem will only make it harder for China to attract and keep talented workers, given that not many companies are prepared to pay higher salaries to compensate for the hardship of living in a polluted city, particularly in instances where employees have family and children.
And even if the money is good, the inconveniences and costs of living in a polluted city, and the devastating impact on one’s health, may just not be worth it.
Flights are often cancelled or delayed when visibility is poor. Outdoor exercise is an almost no-go unless inhaling acrid air and choking smog is one’s cup of tea, given the regularity of smog-filled days.
Small ailments like sore throats and itchy eyes may not kill instantly but can surely irritate and affect one’s work. A nasty surprise may await those who have lived and breathed in Beijing or other polluted cities as to the contents of their lungs during health check-ups. Research has already shown that air pollution could shorten life spans.
Even if one is lucky with the lungs, it is hard to say the same on the road. I am headed out again on Friday morning for a day trip to another Hebei city, with the smog forecast to linger on till later the same day.
Wish me luck.