An American reflects on what it was like to adjust to China's smoggy air—and how outsiders learn to ignore it
A man stands in front of a Chinese coal-fired power plant. Jason Lee/Reuters
Waking up each morning while we lived in China, I found it tempting to play a little game before I looked out the window. I tried to guess what the outside air would look like, based on how much my chest hurt. After about two years, I got to be pretty good at guessing the look of the air. It was a sad game, because most mornings, my chest hurt and there were murky skies.
My guesses didn't necessarily correlate with the most important health dangers of the pollution. There is the pollution you see and the pollution you don't. Particulate matter that is classified as "pm10" (10 micrometers in size) makes the air visibly "dusty." But it is not as dangerous as the smaller, invisible "pm2.5" (2.5 micrometer) particulate matter, which passes unfiltered deep into the lungs. In the U.S. and Europe, there are real-time pm2.5 meters all over the country. It's not officially measured in China at all, which explains the popularity of an unauthorized monitor on top of the U.S. Embassy, which sends out its usually alarming readings in a Twitter stream.