Documentary highlights the dangers of air pollution

January 19, 2017

Documentary highlights the dangers of air pollution

“Under the Dome" showcases huge problem in China


The “fog” blanketing China most days used to be thought of as a natural weather phenomenon that couldn’t be helped.

But since 2012, the words “smog”, “PM2.5”, “air pollution” and “fine particles” have become analogous to a nation’s struggle against an invisible enemy threatening the public health.

For television journalist Chai Jing, her eye-opening moment came when her unborn daughter was diagnosed with a benign tumor and needed surgery right after birth. She wanted to find possible causes and make sense of an overall increase in cancer and respiratory diseases in China. The cancer death rate had jumped 465% in the past decade - there must be some way to explain those numbers (she made sure to mention smoking and aging as factors).

The result of her research is the independent documentary Under the Dome. With a style similar to that of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, her documentary combines interviews with industry insiders, doctors and government officials, harrowing visuals and her presentation of a relentless parade of facts showcasing China’s air quality disaster. She compares life in modern-day China as living in an open-faced experimental chamber - a gruesome experiment measuring the effects of air pollution on an entire nation.

When her film was released online in 2015, it was viewed more than 300 million times before the Chinese government intervened and had it taken down. In other parts of the world, it is still available on YouTube with English subtitles.


Fine particles - the invisible enemy

The problem with air pollution is that the fine particles most dangerous to human health are impossible to see with the naked eye. PM2.5 particles are also too small for the body’s natural defenses. They can pass through the nostrils and throat area (despite coughing) to get into the lungs, and the smallest particles may even enter the bloodstream and wreak havoc on the system. Even the body’s best natural defense mechanisms won’t be enough to defeat these particles fortified with toxic heavy metals. It’s a war inside the body as well.

In major cities all around China, air pollution levels consistently fall into the dangerously high category. For one whole day, Chai Jing carried around a special pump containing an activated carbon disk to measure the amount of pollutants in her immediate surroundings. The white carbon disk turned blackest black.

Everyday exposure to these pollutants has an effect on health - some immediate, some building up over time. Studies show that people exposed to polluted air are more prone to respiratory complications, inflammation of the respiratory system, heart problems as well as cardiovascular concerns. The higher the fine particle pollution, the higher the mortality rate, experts found. Children and the elderly are especially at risk.

Some mothers may wonder whether they can expose their children early to make them “adapt”, Chai Jing explains, but medical evidence says the opposite is true. The only way to protect children is to reduce their exposure. That is why she kept her daughter inside for half the year, “like a prisoner,” she says. “At some point, she will start asking why.”


Economic development vs. environmental protection

At a time when other industrial nations took a step back from coal consumption and implemented emission standards as well as turning toward oil and natural gas as cleaner fuels, China had to catch up and focused on economic development. As a large country with growing energy needs, China burns three to four times more fossil fuels than Europe. In 2013, China burned more coal than the entire world taken together.

But what is even more concerning for Chai Jing and her sources are the chemical reactions between the coal and oil burning pollutants that have nowhere to go in the atmosphere.

China should learn from history, as other nations ran into this pollution problem before. England used to be a mining heavyweight, and the British lived on coal for decades. But when a cold air front trapped all the soot and particles below on December 5, 1952, the Great Smog of London paralyzed the city and took 12,000 lives.

In China, a total revamp of the energy industry may not be in the cards yet, but instead of burning low-quality lignite (brown coal), China could wash it first to cut emissions in half.

Chai Jing takes her viewers on the road to see steel factories, construction sites, rush-hour traffic, checkpoints on highways - she exposes environmental protection is a joke, eco-labels as not meaning a thing and overall confusion and inability to enforce existing low standards. “We need better management,” her source says.

Factories are free to do as they want. “How can we shut them down?” asks one ministry staff member, explaining that hundreds of thousands of people depend on their jobs.


Improved air quality in the future

However, Under the Dome ends on a hopeful note. The city of Los Angeles, once a poster child for awful pollution, has reduced emissions by 75%, passing strict laws and actually enforcing them. London decreased air pollution by replacing coal with oil and natural gas. Yes, mining jobs were lost - but new industries and job opportunities will emerge. China has to stop subsidizing backward industries, Chai Jing says. “China needs to embrace oil and natural gas. Only then will we have cleaner air.”

She supports an informed public and new environmental protection laws. On the individual level, Chai Jing appeals to viewers to leave cars at home whenever possible, report cases of pollution, help small businesses improve (her example was an air purifier being installed on the roof of a restaurant) and take small steps towards a healthier, less polluted China.

It would be nice if some children growing up in China could see the stars at night.


Photo credit: V.T. Polywoda/Creative Commons

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