First-hand experience with Chinese air, pro and con

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Following this item yesterday, about this article in the current issue on the health effects of living in China, good-news and bad-news reports from American friends with long experience in Asia.

First, the bad news.

"I check the BeijingAir Twitter every time I'm headed there for work. I thought I'd report an anecdote from a friend who has worked in China since the 1970s and lived there for many years (though moved back partly to raise children in a more healthy environment!). She had MRIs performed on her lungs some time ago and they indicated significant scarring and other damage, despite the fact that she has never been a smoker. She has never complained of any symptoms or health problems but clearly some damage was done."

FWIW, I heard similar stories from a variety of people who had been in and out of China since the 1980s, but I don't know of any systematic data. Maybe I'll have another data point two weeks from now, when my appointment with my own doctor for a welcome-home physical exam finally rolls around. Only has taken three months to get on his schedule! Good thing we don't have Canadian-style socialized medicine in this country, what with its long waiting lists and rationing-by-delay etc.

Now, the better news:

"We were back in China for a couple of weeks this past summer to visit my former students in Beijing and then to travel in Hunan for a week or so.  I think the air has improved.  It was mostly blue skies, even in Beijing, which I rarely saw when we lived there for 10 months in 2003-04.  I think you are right to conclude that expats do get over the problems once they leave.  At least we haven't had lasting health problems -- at least not yet."

As a side note, based on my experience anyone who wants to visit Beijing in particular should go in October. Even though the current BeijingAir Twitter reading is deep into the "unhealthy" zone, this seems reliably the nicest time of the year.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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