A study by California researchers published last month suggested a link between autism in children and the exposure of pregnant women to traffic-related air pollution. Columbia University researchers, in a study done in New York, found that prenatal exposure to air pollutants could result in children with anxiety, depression and attention-span problems. Some of the same researchers found in an earlier study that children in Chongqing, China, who had prenatal exposure to high levels of air pollutants from a coal-fired plant were born with smaller head circumferences, showed slower growth and performed less well on cognitive development tests at age two. The shutdown of the plant resulted in children born with fewer difficulties.
Analyses show little relief ahead if China does not change growth policies and strengthen environmental regulation. A Deutsche Bank report released in February said the current trends of coal use and automobile emissions meant air pollution was expected to worsen by an additional 70 percent by 2025.
Some children’s hospitals in northern China reported an extraordinary number of patients with respiratory illnesses this winter, when the air pollution soared. During one bad week in January, Beijing Children’s Hospital admitted up to 9,000 patients a day for emergency visits, half of them for respiratory problems, according to a report by Xinhua news agency.
Parents have scrambled to buy air purifiers. IQAir, a Swiss company, makes purifiers that cost up to US$3,000 in China and are displayed in shiny showrooms. Mike Murphy, the chief executive of IQAir China, said sales had tripled in the first three months of this year over the same period last year.
Face masks are now part of the urban dress code. Zhang laid out half a dozen masks on her dining room table and held up a simple one with a picture of a teddy bear that fits Xiaotian. Schools are adopting emergency measures. Xiaotian’s private kindergarten used to take the children on a field trip once a week, but it has canceled most of those this year.
At the prestigious Beijing No. 4 High School, which has long trained Chinese leaders and their children, outdoor physical education classes are now canceled when the pollution index is high.
“The days with blue sky and seemingly clean air are treasured, and I usually go out and do exercise,” said Dong Yifu, a senior there who was just accepted to Yale University.
Elite schools are investing in infrastructure to keep children active. Among them are Dulwich College Beijing and the International School of Beijing, which in January completed two large white sports domes of synthetic fabric that cover athletic fields and tennis courts.
The construction of the domes and an accompanying building began a year ago, to give the 1,900 students a place to exercise in both bad weather and high pollution, said Jeff Johanson, director of student activities. The project cost US$5.7 million and includes hospital-grade air-filtration systems.
Teachers check the hourly air ratings from the US embassy to determine whether children should play outside or beneath the domes.