[Marxism] In China, Breathing Becomes a Childhood Risk

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Apr 23 08:32:06 MDT 2013

NY Times April 22, 2013
In China, Breathing Becomes a Childhood Risk

BEIJING — The boy’s chronic cough and stuffy nose began last year at the 
age of 3. His symptoms worsened this winter, when smog across northern 
China surged to record levels. Now he needs his sinuses cleared every 
night with saltwater piped through a machine’s tubes.

The boy’s mother, Zhang Zixuan, said she almost never lets him go 
outside, and when she does she usually makes him wear a face mask. The 
difference between Britain, where she once studied, and China is “heaven 
and hell,” she said.

Levels of deadly pollutants up to 40 times the recommended exposure 
limit in Beijing and other cities have struck fear into parents and led 
them to take steps that are radically altering the nature of urban life 
for their children.

Parents are confining sons and daughters to their homes, even if it 
means keeping them away from friends. Schools are canceling outdoor 
activities and field trips. Parents with means are choosing schools 
based on air-filtration systems, and some international schools have 
built gigantic, futuristic-looking domes over sports fields to ensure 
healthy breathing.

“I hope in the future we’ll move to a foreign country,” Ms. Zhang, a 
lawyer, said as her ailing son, Wu Xiaotian, played on a mat in their 
apartment, near a new air purifier. “Otherwise we’ll choke to death.”

She is not alone in looking to leave. Some middle- and upper-class 
Chinese parents and expatriates have already begun leaving China, a 
trend that executives say could result in a huge loss of talent and 
experience. Foreign parents are also turning down prestigious jobs or 
negotiating for hardship pay from their employers, citing the pollution.

There are no statistics for the flight, and many people are still eager 
to come work in Beijing, but talk of leaving is gaining urgency around 
the capital and on Chinese microblogs and parenting forums. Chinese are 
also discussing holidays to what they call the “clean-air destinations” 
of Tibet, Hainan and Fujian.

“I’ve been here for six years and I’ve never seen anxiety levels the way 
they are now,” said Dr. Richard Saint Cyr, a new father and a family 
health doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital, whose patients are half 
Chinese and half foreigners. “Even for me, I’ve never been as anxious as 
I am now. It has been extraordinarily bad.”

He added: “Many mothers, especially, have been second-guessing their 
living in Beijing. I think many mothers are fed up with keeping their 
children inside.”

Few developments have eroded trust in the Communist Party as quickly as 
the realization that the leaders have failed to rein in threats to 
children’s health and safety. There was national outrage in 2008 after 
more than 5,000 children were killed when their schools collapsed in an 
earthquake, and hundreds of thousands were sickened and six infants died 
in a tainted-formula scandal. Officials tried to suppress angry parents, 
sometimes by force or with payoffs.

But the fury over air pollution is much more widespread and is just 
beginning to gain momentum.

“I don’t trust the pollution measurements of the Beijing government,” 
said Ms. Zhang’s father, Zhang Xiaochuan, a retired newspaper administrator.

Scientific studies justify fears of long-term damage to children and 
fetuses. A study published by The New England Journal of Medicine showed 
that children exposed to high levels of air pollution can suffer 
permanent lung damage. The research was done in the 1990s in Los 
Angeles, where levels of pollution were much lower than those in Chinese 
cities today.

A study by California researchers published last month suggested a link 
between autism in children and the exposure of pregnant women to 
traffic-related air pollution. Columbia University researchers, in a 
study done in New York, found that prenatal exposure to air pollutants 
could result in children with anxiety, depression and attention-span 
problems. Some of the same researchers found in an earlier study that 
children in Chongqing, China, who had prenatal exposure to high levels 
of air pollutants from a coal-fired plant were born with smaller head 
circumferences, showed slower growth and performed less well on 
cognitive development tests at age 2. The shutdown of the plant resulted 
in children born with fewer difficulties.

Analyses show little relief ahead if China does not change growth 
policies and strengthen environmental regulation. A Deutsche Bank report 
released in February said the current trends of coal use and automobile 
emissions meant air pollution was expected to worsen by an additional 70 
percent by 2025.

Some children’s hospitals in northern China reported a large number of 
patients with respiratory illnesses this winter, when the air pollution 
soared. During one bad week in January, Beijing Children’s Hospital 
admitted up to 9,000 patients a day for emergency visits, half of them 
for respiratory problems, according to a report by Xinhua, the state 
news agency.

Parents have scrambled to buy air purifiers. IQAir, a Swiss company, 
makes purifiers that cost up to $3,000 here and are displayed in shiny 
showrooms. Mike Murphy, the chief executive of IQAir China, said sales 
had tripled in the first three months of 2013 over the same period last 

Face masks are now part of the urban dress code. Ms. Zhang laid out half 
a dozen masks on her dining room table and held up one with a picture of 
a teddy bear that fits Xiaotian. Schools are adopting emergency 
measures. Xiaotian’s private kindergarten used to take the children on a 
field trip once a week, but it has canceled most of those this year.

At the prestigious Beijing No. 4 High School, which has long trained 
Chinese leaders and their children, outdoor physical education classes 
are now canceled when the pollution index is high.

“The days with blue sky and seemingly clean air are treasured, and I 
usually go out and do exercise,” said Dong Yifu, a senior there who was 
just accepted to Yale University.

Elite schools are investing in infrastructure to keep children active. 
Among them are Dulwich College Beijing and the International School of 
Beijing, which in January completed two large white sports domes of 
synthetic fabric that cover athletic fields and tennis courts.

The construction of the domes and an accompanying building began a year 
ago, to give the 1,900 students a place to exercise in both bad weather 
and high pollution, said Jeff Johanson, director of student activities. 
The project cost $5.7 million and includes hospital-grade air-filtration 

Teachers check the hourly air ratings from the United States Embassy to 
determine whether children should play outside or beneath the domes. 
“The elementary schoolchildren don’t miss recess anymore,” Mr. Johanson 

One American mother, Tara Duffy, said she had chosen a prekindergarten 
school for her daughter in part because the school had air filters in 
the classrooms. The school, called the 3e International School, also 
brings in doctors to talk about pollution and bars the children from 
playing outdoors during increases in smog levels. “In the past six 
months, there have been a lot more ‘red flag’ days, and they keep the 
kids inside,” said Ms. Duffy, a writer and former foundation consultant.

Ms. Duffy said she also checked the daily air quality index to decide 
whether to take her daughter to an outdoor picnic or an indoor play space.

Now, after nine years here, Ms. Duffy is leaving China, and she cites 
the pollution and traffic as major factors.

That calculus is playing out with expatriates across Beijing, and even 
with foreigners outside China. One American couple with a young child 
discussed the pollution when considering a prestigious foundation job in 
Beijing, and it was among the reasons they turned down the offer.

James McGregor, a senior counselor in the Beijing office of APCO 
Worldwide, a consulting company, said he had heard of an American 
diplomat with young children who had turned down a posting here. That 
was despite the fact that the State Department provides a 15 percent 
salary bonus for Beijing that exists partly because of the pollution. 
The hardship bonus for other Chinese cities, which also suffer from 
awful air, ranges from 20 percent to 30 percent, except for Shanghai, 
where it is 10 percent.

“I’ve lived in Beijing 23 years, and my children were brought up here, 
but if I had young children I’d have to leave,” Mr. McGregor said. “A 
lot of people have started exit plans.”

Amy Qin and Shi Da contributed research.

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