Air Pollution in China

I grew up with asthma – I remember the horrible choking painful feeling of not being able to get a full breath.

The hours spent in hospital waiting rooms or using Ventolin masks, the shaky feeling after masks and the ache of the muscles in your chest the next day.  I grew up before the days when every second kid carried a puffer.  In my time it was still associated with being overweight, out of shape and bad at sports.  It also somehow meant you were a nerd, a geek and would never get a date. Not only did I have to carry an inhaler but I also felt the need to hide it.

All the time.

As I got older I realized it had a lot more to do with the family cat and my allergies to it, than my weight, sports aptitude or the coolness factor  None the less,  the struggle that I felt growing up, and the shame that the inhaler brought me was something that was shaped my childhood.

Not only has the diagnosis of asthma increased in the past decade by about 15%, but so has information regarding what it actually is. Asthma is something that has reached millions and is something that has become increasingly prevalent, which many have associated with the increasing pollution seen in our air.

I hadn’t thought much about asthma recently, until last month when I took my kids to China.  We landed in Guangzhou, and as soon as we stepped outside, I realized the stories of how bad the pollution was in China were all true. As soon as we stepped outside of the airport doors, the air became harder to breathe, and reminded me of my childhood and the asthma that I had had to deal with. For the first time since being a kid, I had this cloying feeling of not getting a full breath

Photo credit:

This pollution not only affected my asthma, but shaped our whole trip. While we were there, we took our children up a tower, similar to the CN Tower, with lookouts and even a glass floor. However unlike the CN Tower, when you looked down you could not see the ground, but rather could only see a brown smog. When you looked around, you couldn’t even see business towers that were less than a block away. If you look at a street light on a summer evening in Canada you can see the moths and bugs buzzing around the light.  In China it looks the same only nothing is alive.  The air tasted like soot and I don’t think there was any day we were there that I saw any blue in the sky, because the pollution was so bad that it constantly looked brownish-grey. The stark contrast to the life we lead here, I think was most emphasized by the warnings advising us not to let our kids run around outside because they shouldn’t breathe heavily. The life of everyday people in China is widely affected by the pollution in their air. Our souvenir to bring home?  Air pollution masks.

Beijing is one of the cities with the worst air quality. Image credit china-mike. com

When I came home and told this story, people always immediately blamed the Chinese people.  I heard comment after comment about how they need to put standards into place, and that this was something they needed to learn how to regulate, but no one ever thought about how we as consumers have not only perpetuated but also to a large extent caused this poor air quality.  No one took a step back to comment on how we need to change our consumption.   Most of the air pollution in China comes from factories that are creating goods that we consume, it keeps our dollar store shelves stocked and our discount stores brimming.  The goods that we consume from China are often disposable, poorly made and do not last long as they are made at the cheapest prices possible, which means that the factory owners must cut corners, such as polluting the air rather than putting in scrubbers to reduce the effect upon the environment.

Ultimately however, these factories are only functioning as their products are being bought in stores, by people like you and I. The average person in China is not causing the huge pollution that can be seen there today, but rather we in North America can be blamed for this pollution as we are the ones supporting these factories and consuming their goods.

I was happy to leave Guangzhou behind and take my kids home to cleaner air,  but I was devastated to know that as my plane lifted off it would do nothing but add to the pollution affecting the lives of the 9 million people who live in this city.

Are the cheap products we import from China worth the price that millions of people are paying with every breath they take?

Related articles


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.