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Beijing's air: like standing downwind from a forest fire

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Andy Wong/AP

(Read caption) Chinese women, one wearing a mask, ride on an electric bike crossing a street as the city skyline is shrouded by haze in Beijing, Tuesday.

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I knew when I drew my bedroom curtains open this morning that I should not even have gotten up.

Drawing the curtains had no visible effect on the amount of light coming through the window. I could not see the buildings on the other side of the road because the grey fog of pollution was so thick. 

A quick visit to the US embassy’s Twitter page, which posts hourly readings of Beijing’s pollution levels, confirmed what my eyes and nose had already told me. The reading was “Beyond Index,” off the charts, seven times worse than US standards for acceptable air quality.

Beijing airport shut down, so poor was the visibility.

For perspective, one way an American could breathe air like Beijing’s 20 million citizens were breathing all morning would be to stand downwind from a forest fire. 

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Everybody who lives here could see and feel how bad it was, but the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center was saying on its website that the air quality was “good.” 

That will soon change, the government has promised. By the end of this month Beijing will become the first Chinese city to publish hourly official data revealing the level of minute particles smaller than 2.5 microns, which is what the US embassy does. 

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