TUNG’S TAKE: Let’s get some clean air up in here

Back in sixth grade, our class’s naturalist guide led us on a hike to the top of Hawk Hill. From that extraordinary vantage point, we were able to gaze on not only the surrounding mountainsides, but also the Central Valley in the distance. The Central Valley clouded in a yellow haze, was the object of our guide’s three-minute rant about the perils of air pollution.

While the rest of my class was disgusted with the clouded air, I was unapologetic in my acceptance of air pollution.

“It’s one of the prices of progress,” I murmured.

Two years ago, though, headlines of Beijing’s notorious smog clogged news sites as badly as the smog clogged the air above that Chinese metropolis.

“Airpocalypse” was the quickly coined name. After a serious two-week period of soot, a winter storm blew the smog both out of the air and out of the headlines.

But while “Airpocalypse” was mainly forgotten in Western media, the gray skies of Asia haven’t been cured.

When I was in Singapore last summer, the skies were darkened by haze blown in from neighboring Indonesia. So thick was the smog that my uncle refused to pay for us to go on the Singapore Flyer, a giant ferris wheel in the brand-new Marina Bay District, because “What’s the use of a $30 ticket when all you see is gray?”.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, things were little better. The vantage point of Island School, in the Mid Levels district of Victoria Peak, gave a first-hand viewpoint of the smog offensive.

On the worst days, it was all but impossible to spot the Tsim Sha Tsui side of the harbour, a mere three kilometers away.

Because I went in the rainy season, though, every other day or so, heavy rains would bring the airborne pollution back down to the ground—momentarily.

Within hours the blue skies would begin to look tinged, a little less clear. Within 10 hours they would become solidly gray, a thick, suspended soup hanging above the city, before coming splattering back down with the next rainstorm.

The few times the blue skies stayed blue for more than 12 hours were after a typhoon (hurricane).

Meanwhile, “Airpocalypse” has already made an early return to Beijing, recently tinging the skies gray. So bad was the smog that Central Government authorities had to shut down factories in the neighboring three provinces because a international financial summit was coming to town.

While “Airpocalypse” might make the headlines now, it will make its way into oncologists’ offices soon as the millions who have inhaled the toxic fumes begin to succumb to lung cancer and other medical ailments the smog causes.

Thirty years ago, almost all of Asia, excluding Japan, was smog free. While it’s great that GDPs and monthly incomes are rising all across the continent, it’s important to remember that it’s pretty much impossible to put economic development to use when you’re dead.

It might not be front page news every day, but “Airpocalypse” happens more often than you think: from Beijing to the Central Valley.

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