China's Toxic Sky


"A bright video screen shows images of blue sky on Tiananmen Square during a time of dangerous levels of air pollution, on January 23."


"A couple wearing protective masks poses for a self portrait in thick haze on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, on January 29."

Previously, previously.

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20 Responses:

  1. Will says:

    What are you worried about? It takes days for that air to reach here.

  2. nooj says:

    "You literally can see the smog inside a large enough building. The airport terminal, the hotel lobby are large enough that you can no longer see clearly across the room."

    Ew. I wonder what their rates of heart attacks are. In the US, when we ban smoking from bars, the heart attack rates of nonsmokers--nonsmokers--plummets within six months. This has got to be worse.

  3. Americans get heart attacks from the thought that someone may be smoking in a bar. The Chinese face real pollution. The Americans should get real.

    • jso says:

      Yes, clearly the Americans need to deal with more smog rather than the Chinese resolving their pollution issues.

    • Pavel Lishin says:

      X's problem with Y is worse than our problem with Y; therefore, we don't have a problem with Y!

      • The problems of second-hand smoking have been strongly exaggerated to the point that we don't really have a real problem with it. I don't believe the statistic that in the US, when we ban smoking from bars, the heart attack rates of nonsmokers--nonsmokers--plummets within six months.

        • jwz says:

          I understand that vaccination is highly overrated as well.

          • piku says:

            I'd give up trying. Rational thought and sense died years ago.

            (especially when it involves the "loss" of some sort of "freedom" - like the freedom to do what the hell you like with no regard for others)

            We'll be pouring Gatorade on our plants before long.

        • nooj says:

          Many people choose to believe that we can't possibly learn something from a study unless it's an unassailable double-blind randomized controlled trial (RCT). Unfortunately, no single study can definitively prove causation. It takes a preponderance of evidence from study after study to show causation. (This is why tobacco companies were so successful in litigation for so long. Every study that has ever been done is assailable.)

          And it's worse than that! Nothing can prove causation! Biology isn't fully understood. Yet do we become paralyzed? No. We allow ourselves to become convinced based on the data available.

          RCTs, the most rigorous of data sources, are hard, expensive, take a long time, and only provide a single p-value. Very little of what we know about medicine is tested with an RCT. (For instance, the stethoscope has never been shown to provide benefit.) Everything else we gain from these studies--a vast amount--is in one way or another an observational study.

          There is no RCT for smoking. There never will be. It's not ethical to randomly assign someone to start smoking because we already believe smoking to be harmful. Even if someone were to do the study (and who would fund it?) the researcher would be presumed to be unethical himself and the data therefore not trustworthy. So all we have are smoking cessation trials (these kinds of trials are ethical because at the end of the trial everyone is offered the smoking cessation treatment), and cohort studies.

          Cohort studies, a type of observational study where we follow a group of people over time, are quite powerful. The Framingham Risk Score, for example, comes from one of the longest-running cohort studies. (Notice that the calculator asks about smoking, but not about diet or weight or race or where you live or even whether you have cancer.)

          Cohort studies can be subject to bias. Again, we do not let the bias prevent us from learning; cohort study bias is well-understood. Strictly speaking, we only think of them as hypothesis-generating, not definitive. (This is the point you were making.) We accept their suggestions, though, when data from many different sources, answering different questions, from different funders and different research groups, all support the same conclusion.

          Lots of people have spent decades giving serious thought to these questions and come to considered conclusions. The conclusions are rarely wrong by much.

        • Pavel Lishin says:

          I don't care.

          I do, however, object to your flippant dismissal of a potential problem here by plugging in your values for X and Y in what I posted above.

          I also don't care what you believe or not. Statistics don't change whether you believe in them or not, leaving aside the question of their accuracy.

        • nooj says:

          nooj> In the US, when we ban smoking from bars,
          nooj> the heart attack rates of nonsmokers--nonsmokers--
          nooj> plummets within six months.

          Here is a recent study from the Archives of Internal Medicine. (pdf)

          Look at the last three data points on the left side of Figure 1. The heart attack rate plummeted.

          Heart attack rates in Olmsted County MN were studied 18 months before and after two different smoking ordinances were passed. When a smoke-free restaurant law that did not include bars or other workplaces was implemented (Ordinance 1), there was no significant decline in heart attack (MI). However, when all workplaces (including bars) became smoke-free (Ordinance 2), smoking rates declined by 34% over the 18 months before and after.

          "In conclusion, the implementation of smoke-free workplace ordinances was associated with a substantial decrease in MI, the magnitude of which is not explained by concomitant community interventions or changes in cardiovascular risk factors, with the exception of smoking prevalence. All clinicians should be encouraged to become advocates for effective tobacco control policies, such as increased taxes, graphic labeling, smoke-free workplaces, and marketing and advertising restrictions, since smoking and second-hand smoke exposure are responsible for 10% of all cardiovascular deaths globally."

          Critics may say, but look! That's not true! (pdf) And I say, yes, sometimes when we look at data we measure something inconsistent with our understanding. When this happens infrequently, we call it anomalous. When it happens frequently, we elevate the question to a more rigorous level of testing.

          No matter what you have read anywhere, let me be clear: There is no scientific debate on whether smoking is dangerous. There is no scientific debate on whether reducing smoke exposure has benefit.

  4. James says:

    This looks terribly bleak, right?

    The good news is that global wind power is growing far faster and has gone super-exponential in the U.S., with 8% of all U.S. wind having been installed in December, bringing wind to 6% of all U.S. electricity at present, with wind power companies hiring on top of that. It's also less expensive because contrary to popular opinion it's easy to store at night and you can synthesize gasoline out of it, too, by sucking the carbonic acid out of seawater.

    The great thing (if you can call it that) about the smog levels in Beijing is that they are teetering just at the threshold levels where catastrophically more people (including multiple orders of magnitude more kids) end up in the hospital all of the sudden. China still has enough of a command economy to try to prove that they can switch to wind faster than the U.S., because their noses are literally being rubbed in it.

    • nooj says:

      Beijing is teetering just at the threshold levels where catastrophically more people (including multiple orders of magnitude more kids) end up in the hospital all of the sudden.

      That's kind of always true when you look at the health risk / airborne carcinogen curve. (Risk appears to increase exponentially at US levels.) Hence my comment regarding smoking above. Beijing is WAY up on that curve compared to America. They are going to have some serious cancer rates in five to ten years.

      • James says:

        It's not a gradual curve. There's a catastrophic point which can suddenly double total mortality and Beijing is very close to that point.

        • nooj says:

          We agree completely. I said the curve is exponential (or appears so). That means no matter where you are on the curve, a certain increase in smog doubles risk. Every point is catastrophic!

          Specifically, if y = a exp(bx), increasing x by ln(2)/b will double y, no matter the value of x.

          Ironically, it's sort of what that guy up there was saying, that Americans get heart attacks just from thinking of secondhand smoke. He's making a funny joke, but our reasoning is quite real. Even low levels of carcinogens are worth reducing further.

  5. xrayspx says:

    It's a beautiful new day, hey hey hey.

  6. Tom Lord says:

    Gas chamber? Nah... no need.

  7. tkil says:

    The title for this entry immediately made me think of Liquid Sky.

  8. Owen W. says:

    I see reality has caught up to Spaceballs: http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2013/01/chinas-toxic-sky/100449/#img30

    "China's recent streak of foul air has rekindled a tongue-in-cheek campaign by a Chinese multimillionaire with a streak of showmanship who is raising the alarm by selling canned fresh air."