In Search of Good Air

Justin Hill
Jan 17th, 2014

Chinese smog is more than an eyesore - it's a deadly blight.


I.  The sun, somewhere, is shining.  I am standing on the top floor of my building towards Hong Kong Island.  The air is pale and misty.  It has that same evening light, at 3pm on a winter’s afternoon, that I remember from Beijing and Shanxi.  It’s a faded, dusty, thin sunlight.  It’s the light that comes through thick afternoon mist.  It’s a thoughtful light.  Not too bright to cast shadows.  It makes me think of cave houses, the yellow loess soil of north China, peasants with faces weathered dark and craggy in the sun.

It’s easy to ignore pollution.  It doesn’t smell so bad – and really, after a while, you’ve forgotten what clean air smelt like – and this yellow musty atmosphere is what you think is normal.  There are perks.  Last night, the last full moon of the Chinese Year rose over Hong Kong Harbour.  ‘Look,’ my daughter said.  ‘The moon is red!’

‘Oh yes,’ I thought.  How pretty.  We kept watching as it rose higher than the IFC, higher than Victoria Peak.  By the time it was a quarter way up into the sky the moon had paled from red to white.

Last year, at this time, I started having asthma attacks for the first time in my forty-odd years.  I woke up choking, literally unable to breathe.  The first doctor seemed baffled.  ‘If it happens again call an ambulance,’ she told me.

‘I can’t breathe,’ I told her.  ‘And I certainly can’t talk.’

The next doctor laughed and sucked his teeth.  ‘It is pollution,’ he said. He shrugged. He laughed and sucked his teeth again.  ‘This time of year is very bad!’

He started me on the standard asthma inhaler. The seizures kept coming, and I went to see specialists, and travelled a fair way along the line of steroid inhalers, which come in round vaporizers in a variety of colours, each one stronger than the last.

‘A virus has made your tissues very sensitive to pollution,’ the specialist told me.  ‘I will give you these tablets, another steroid inhaler and this salt solution.  Spray it up your nose each night and then to let it run down your throat and spit out of your mouth.  It will wash away the pollution particles.’


II.  We spent Christmas with a relative who had lung cancer.  A lifetime of smoking has done it to him.  One lung has collapsed because the tumour has blocked the airways.  He is living on one lung.  That is also growing a tumour.  ‘I wish I never smoked,’ he said.  Even sentences this short make him wheeze.    Climbing the stairs is an effort.  Two weeks ago his brother in law died of lung cancer.  From the diagnosis to his end it only took him six weeks.   He was a smoker too.

When do governments do something about it.  Or rather, when do populations force governments to do something about it?


III.  As I type my wife is having a CAT scan of her sinuses, on the recommendation of the Ear, Throat and Nose specialist.  She spends half her life with colds, but it wasn’t always like this.

When does pollution become too bad, I wonder.

When we moved to Shaoyang, in Hunan, the pollution had more of a flavour.  There were no statistics, but our five month year old baby was hospitalized with breathing problems with two months of our arrival.  She was wired up to a vapour inhaler, and put onto the ubiquitous drip.

It is difficult to find veins in Chinese babies, so the drip is put into the baby’s forehead, which is a uniquely difficult thing to control.

‘I think you can find a vein here,’ I suggested, and indeed, there was the thin blue line.

We left Shaoyang.  It was clear that breathing the air there was going to kill us.  It nearly did one night when a faulty water heater leaking carbon monoxide knocked me flat just after I had climbed out of the bath. My wife heard a crash and came to the kitchen to see what had happened and found me flat on the floor, unconscious.  ‘Justin!’ she shouted.  She thought I had died.

I came round with her still shouting at me.

‘Why are you shouting?’ I asked, and then she passed out.  She had left the kitchen door open, and I guess there was enough good, clean air, coming through the door.  I carried her to the bed.  We are going to leave China, we each decided that night as we lay, unable to sleep.  And so we came to Hong Kong, in search of good air.



Hong Kong pollution


Justin Hill
United Kingdom
Last blog date: Jun 4th, 2014


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