It is affecting us all.

After making our way through Inner Mongolia and leaving China, the sight of the sky and fresh air in our lungs was like exiting some sort of biosphere project testing how much pollution the human body can handle in one sitting. After three weeks in China, our lungs were beaten down and each breath was painful. The view from the street in Beijing only leant a line of sight no farther than 3 blocks before the buildings on the street would fade away into gray smoke.

It has been 3 months since the expedition was in China. Steve Bouey still has a bad cough or some sort of lung infection that most certainly originated in China. Everywhere you turn in China people carry on with little unhealthy, persistent coughs. Our guide Jason told us that he had a cold when we first met him, but the cold lasted with the same little cough for the entire 3 weeks we were there.

Of all the things we have encountered on the road, the pollution in China is one that still haunts me on a regular basis. Only 1 percent of the country’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union. It is pretty easy to see why Steve B. has lung problems after we spent about 90% of the time in cities. Even while driving the thousands of kilometers on the route through China, over and over Jason repeatedly told me, “This area is heavily industrialized.” The truth is that most of the country is heavily industrialized, and lacking any sort of environmental regulation. In fact Haushan, one of the five ancient sacred mountains in China, is less than 6 miles away from a 5 stack coal power plant. The mountain was completely blocked from sight by the smoke on our visit. Imagine if the Tetons or Yellowstone had industrial zoning with factories using technology from the early 1900s right near the entrance to the park.

It is estimated that somewhere between 400,000 and 700,000 people die prematurely from air pollution each year in China. The leaders in China have declined the use of tax policies and incentives for conservation. Loans for heavy polluters are readily available and relatively inexpensive. With double digit economic growth each year in China, the government and citizens seem to have lost any vision for the future, as their health care costs shoot through the roof and the environment they rely on for survival becomes a wasteland that cannot preserve life. The acid rain and wastewater pollution from toxic factories in the north have caused epidemics of cancer in villages throughout the region.

So why is it that so many people that I talk to about China have no idea that the pollution is this bad? The Chinese government does their best to cover all of it up. China’s State Environmental Protection Agency engineered the removal of statistics in a World Bank study, the Financial Times reported, because the government feared the figures could trigger social unrest. While in China I attempted some research for this blog and found that Wikipedia was blocked, along with the New York Times, the BBC and more. The only sites that I could find pollution statistics while in China were grossly underreported.

On my most recent search on “China Pollution,” of the hordes of articles available, a few of the titles read:

“China’s Rare River Dolphin Now Extinct, Experts Announce”

“Chinese Air Pollution Deadliest in World, Report Says”

“As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes”

“Pollution Darkens China’s Skies”

It is amazing why more citizens of the world are not up in arms about this. The effects of this pollution are causing acid rain in Japan and Korea. In Los Angeles, much of the particulate pollution originates in China according to the Journal of Geophysical Research. This year, in fact, China has even surpassed the United States on the amount of pollution they produce. Many times when I bring all of this up the immediate argument is that we cannot get mad at China for having an industrial revolution like the US and Britain had centuries ago. This argument seems so strange since “The Industrial Revolution” refers to the introduction of industry to the world. Back then we did not know any better, today China should. Just because one country makes a mistake does not give the rest of the countries in world the right to make a similar mistake with consequences that make the original Industrial Revolution look like Earth Day.

Check out this photo from on Wikipedia. Where does all of that pollution go after the rain? Could it possibly end up in the watershed? It would seem a strange coincidence that coastlines exist in China that can no longer sustain any marine life due to the algal red tides. As we always say when people ask us about the mission of The World by Road, the main stream media has a tendency to sensationalize stories to make them marketable. For whatever reason, it seems that the story of China’s pollution problems is not sensationalized enough. We have dedicated a photo gallery to Chinese pollution on the site…check out the photos and make the decision for yourself just how bad this problem is.

Extra bonus points if you can find the great wall on this blue sky dayThe haze in Chengdu was bad enough to prevent the auto focus on our camera from working properlyOne of the 342 or so coal fired power plants we drove by during our 3 weeks in ChinaLike most cities in China, you can't see more than a block or two on a good dayBouey trying to clear his lungs near Xi An - notice the mountains in the background - oh wait you can'tThe air was so bad near Xi An, you could even see the pollution inside the Terracotta WarriorsThe hills surrounding the Terracotta army obscured by haze not cloudsWe went to Huashan to hike one of the most dangerous trails in the world only to find the air is even more dangerousWe went to Huashan to hike one of the most dangerous trails in the world only to find the air is even more dangerousHey, that truck needs a tune upOh wait, maybe the environment needs the tune upA powerplant was constructed less than 5 kilometers from one of the holiest mountains in ChinaA powerplant was constructed less than 5 kilometers from one of the holiest mountains in ChinaIt was actually a pretty clear day at the Longmen cavesYeah rightAll of the smog makes for nice sunsets I guessPower plant number 561The city skyline is out there somewhereNo comment We had to get our emissions checked before entering the China to protect the environment

More links to additional information:

China’s Rare River Dolphin Now Extinct, Experts Announce (December 14, 2006)

Chinese Air Pollution Deadliest in World, Report Says

Environment of China

Pollution poisons China’s progress

As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes