The Shanghai Smog-pocalypse. Air pollution is real, people. And it gets ugly.

Smog Shanghai

First, a story.

The wind whistles through the crevices of the buildings, creating an eerie feel as I huddle in a dimly lit room next to a radiator heater. Visibility has been reduced to almost nothing. When I look out the window over my mother’s balcony, I can only see a few of the buildings in front of me, while the rest are cloaked in what appears to be a thick, impenetrable fog. What appears to be fog is really a thick, suffocating mass of pollutants and poisonous particulate matter. That fog is made up of larger particulate matter which can be blocked using a modest dust mask, and invisible particulate matter (PM 2.5s) – a poisonous particle so small (2.5 microns) it can pass through a heavy duty gas mask. PM 2.5 levels today are at 365 microns, a level 15 times higher than the maximum recommended exposure (25 microns) over a period of 24 hours by the World Health Organization.

Shanghai Air Quality Index on Dec 6 - 415 to 500 to Beyond Index

Air Quality Index on Dec 6 – 415 to 500 to Beyond Index

My throat is raw and choked, and my lungs hurt as I dejectedly breathe the poisonous air from inside my mother’s apartment. Small, shallow breaths are all I can bear to take, and each breath I take makes me dizzier than the last. Both of my parents developed a high fever overnight, with body aches and chills that did not let up through the night. Today, we went to the hospital to get medication for my mom, whose lungs were burning. Every breath she took caused her to react with a wheezing cough that sounded so painful it made me feel sad.

After donning our 3M P95 particulate masks, we stepped outside into the massive fog of smog and got into a cab in search of the nearest hospital. When we got there, I witnessed one of the most depressing scenes


I have ever seen. Dozens of elderly people were on respirators, strapped to gurneys and lined up in the hallways. The hospital had chosen to perform heavy construction and to remodel the place on one of the days with the worst air quality since the infamous December 6th, where flights were canceled and children and the elderly were ordered to stay inside. The construction was sending more pollutants into the air, but no one seemed to care.

This was a country that valued industry and productivity above all else – even at the cost of the well-being of its citizens and of the world. The sight of this infuriated me. Affected elderly were lined up on gurneys, choking in the hallway on cigarette smoke that was aggravating the already dire situation. I glared at the people smoking in the hallway. They casually brought cigarettes to their lips, flicking the embers onto the ground. Lung cancer was not a concern, it seemed. To my left, a distraught middle aged woman repeatedly wailed and sobbed “mother” as she threw herself on the ground in agony. Her mother had just died. balcony

My mother was feeling faint and her condition was getting worse. She tried to ignore the middle aged woman’s incessant sobs and screams. After what felt like an hour of waiting in the smoke choked hallway, we finally saw a doctor. The diagnosis? We both had developed an upper respiratory tract infection brought on by excessive exposure to pollutants. I had only been in Shanghai for 4 days. After receiving our antibiotics, we scoured the city for home air purifiers, something my sister mentioned would improve our health and breathing dramatically. After enduring 5 consecutive cab rides in the poisonous haze, we found that all air purifiers across the city were completely sold out. Dramatic as it may sound, it felt like the apocalypse. I called my sister, hyperventilating and crying. “Quit freaking out,” she said, “the more you freak out, the more air you’ll breathe in. Calm down.” I told her I could taste the particulate matter on my tongue and I could feel it in my lungs. I could taste it when I coughed, and I could smell it when I blew my nose. A Chinese chef, Alan Yu described the taste best when he wrote a satirical tasting note on the air in Shanghai:

“Today, Shanghai air really has a layered taste. At first, it tastes slightly astringent with some smokiness. Upon full contact with your palate, the aftertaste has some earthy bitterness, and upon careful distinguishing you can even feel some dust-like particulate matter.”

Skyline Smog

For those of you who don’t already know, breathing in air pollution and the intake of PM 2.5 particles is directly linked to lung cancer. Don’t believe me? Click here to see the World Health Organization’s article on Click here to read a recent LA Times article titled “Lung Cancer: A Cloud on China’s Horizon.” The extremely disturbing LA Times article contains unnerving statistics about children from non-smoking families as young as 8 and 16 being diagnosed with lung cancer in Shanghai and Beijing. The Chinese government has done everything to try to hide this from its citizens, blocking news and opinion websites with accurate information about related health risks and writing articles minimizing and downplaying the danger. “If your child isn’t coughing, then he or she is not affected by the smog,” one Chinese article read. “You only need to start worrying if your child actually starts coughing.” I CAN’T TELL YOU HOW ANGRY I FELT WHEN I READ THAT.

When breathing (something you do every day, and every second) becomes something this problematic, it becomes an issue that is top of mind. The average human breathes in 7-8 liters of air per minute, totaling about 11,000 liters a day. When the air you’re breathing is actually POISON, this becomes a major issue. (Duh!) This problem doesn’t just affect Shanghai. Particulate matter originating in China has been found in the United States already, and it doesn’t just go away.

If choking on poisonous air particles and smog isn’t your idea of a nice way to live, please take the following steps to help reduce pollution in your area. Let’s keep San Francisco air clean and do our part to make sure this never happens to us.  You will feel better about yourself and be confident that you’re part of the solution and not the problem. We all need more of these people in the world.


At Home

  • Conserve energy – turn off appliances and lights when you leave the room.
  • Recycle paper, plastic, glass bottles, cardboard, and aluminum cans. (This conserves energy and reduces production emissions.)
  • Plant deciduous trees in locations around your home to provide shade in the summer, but to allow light in the winter.
  • Wash clothes with warm or cold water instead of hot.
  • Lower your thermostat and run the heater sparingly.
  • Use low-VOC or water-based paints, stains, finishes, and paint strippers.
  • BIKE! Whenever you can. It’s fun, healthy & emission free.

Buy Smart

  • Buy ENERGY STAR products, including energy efficient lighting and appliances.
  • Choose gas efficient, low-polluting cars. Drive a hybrid if you can.
  • Choose products that have less packaging and are reusable.
  • Shop with a canvas bag instead of using paper and plastic bags.
  • Buy rechargeable batteries for devices used frequently.

Drive Wise

  • Keep tires properly inflated and aligned. (You’ll use less gas.)
  • In the summertime, fill gas tank during cooler evening hours to cut down on evaporation. Avoid spilling gas and don’t “top off” the tank. Replace gas tank cap tightly.
  • Avoid waiting in long drive-thru lines, for example, at fast-food restaurants or banks. Park your car and go in.
  • When possible, use public transportation, walk, or ride a bike.
  • Get regular engine tune ups and car maintenance checks, smog checks.
  • Use an energy-conserving (EC) grade motor oil.
  • Carpool.


I Found the World So New

It’s brightly lit in my bedroom, where I’m sitting and writing out my latest blog entry from under the throes of a pretty severe cold I contracted on the flight back to San Francisco from Shanghai. It’s strange to think about how just a few days ago, I was in Shanghai at TianZiFang, having pizza and applying deet to avoid mosquitos. Even more recently, I bought my last Costa Coffee at the Beijing airport before boarding my final flight that would take me back home.

The only visible remnants of my trip are my pretty solid suntan from Ko Phi Phi, and now the cold I brought back on the plane ride. When I got back to the city, I became overwhelmed with how “white” everything seemed. People everywhere were speaking English, and (surprise), I got service with an actual smile at the arrivals counter in the SFO airport. Getting on BART was shocking. The transportation system seemed so inadequate, small-town, and quaint compared to the metro systems of Shanghai and Hong Kong. A voice with a southern drawl and bored tone announced each and every BART stop we were approaching. I had grown accustomed to hearing electronic voices and seeing blinking lights announce stops in Shanghai. “Now approaching, South Shanxi Road.” “The next stop is XinTianDi.” “Please mind your belongings.” All this had changed into: “Neeext stahhp, Col-muh. Col-muh stay-shin.”

San Francisco seemed like a quiet, deserted little town compared to the buzz and immense energy that is Shanghai. When I arrived in San Francisco, I noticed how broad the streets were, and how few people and cars were on the streets. There were no gargantuan marquees with television blaring from the buildings…no bikers, no pedestrians, and no cars trying to run everyone over. After being on a 12 hour flight, I immediately wanted a massage. I was tempted to walk over to the Jin Healing for Women massage center near my house, and tell them in mandarin, “Give it to me for $15. I know how you people work. Don’t shit me – I just got back from China. $55 is way too much.” I felt somewhat sad knowing that this tactic would probably result in failure.

Today, missing the tastes of Shanghai and hoping to clear my sinuses with a little Sichuan food, I drove my near bedridden self to Sichuan Home in the Outer Richmond district, a few blocks from my apartment. I ordered the ShuiZuYu, or hot chili oil fish, and found it to be a bit of a disappointment compared to similar dishes I’d had in Shanghai. Guess I’ll have to get my spicy fix next time.

Upon return, however, I’ve delighted in familiar conveniences I’d been without for two months: fresh produce, well stocked and easy-to-navigate supermarkets, home cooked meals, yummy avocados, readily available medicines and an extremely comfortable bed.

Not to mention, my beautiful girlfriend whom I’ve missed so much. It’s so nice to be able to fall asleep next to her every night again.

With that, I leave you with a song that reminds me of vacationing and exploration – a song I heard while being whisked away in my father’s car to a Halal restaurant in Shanghai.