Fri, May 29, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Welcome to Baoding, China’s most polluted city

In February, Baoding was given the unwanted title of possessing the worst air quality in the nation. The city is desperate to reinvent itself as a pioneer of renewable energy

By Jennifer Duggan  /  The Guardian, BAODING, China

Illustration: Mountain People

It is a rare blue-skied day in the city of Baoding, in northeastern China. It is not even that clear, but the hazy sky is as blue as it gets here. Most days, the sky is obscured by a thick blanket of smog.

Baoding, a city of 10 million people, was named in February as China’s most polluted city by the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection, based on air pollution figures gathered for last year. By the middle of this month, the city had only enjoyed 16 days of air quality that could be considered “good” by the official classification.

“Generally, there is smog on most days,” said Mr Han, aged 66, who has lived in Baoding his whole life.

He drives a motorbike that carries a carriage-like trailer, and parks outside the city’s main supermarket to ferry shoppers home for a small fee.

“It was much better when I was young — the air was very clean,” he said. “We rarely see blue skies now.”

Expecting coal stacks and factories pumping out toxic fumes, I instead see farmland whizzing past the window as I approach Baoding on the high-speed train from Beijing. Even when driving around the city, it is not immediately obvious what causes the pollution. The outskirts are home to one coal power plant that does not appear to be in use, with no sign of workers and not a wisp of smoke from the big chimneys. Like an increasing number of plants in the province, it might well have been closed down as part of increased governmental anti-pollution measures.

METALLIC TANG

Yet, on a bad day, Baoding’s pollution levels can rise to more than 300 on the air quality index, which is classed as hazardous for human health. On these days, the smog clings to the city like a thick gray shroud, and its residents are ghost-like shadows moving through the haze. Visibility for driving is reduced, and headlights and traffic lights glow eerily, barely visible. Air is not something you can normally taste, but, on high-pollution days, there is a metallic tang that catches in the back of your throat.

Despite this, many of Baoding’s residents appear hesitant to discuss the city’s new status as China’s most polluted city, and when they do, are often defensive of it.

“It’s OK in Baoding,” Mr Zhu tells me, pointing to today’s unusually clear skies.

He is manning a food stand outside a small restaurant; over a hot stove, he prepares thick savory pancakes filled with vegetables — Zhu said that his version of this popular snack food is the best in the city. Although he spends hours outside every day, he said he is not worried about the pollution, asserting his faith that the central government is doing something to improve the situation.

According to official figures, on the day I visit, Baoding’s air quality is “good,” despite the fact that the level of PM2.5 particles — which have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers and are considered dangerous because they can travel deep into the lungs — is at 54 micrograms per cubic meter, more than double the maximum daily levels recommended by the WHO.

Baoding is located in north-eastern Hebei Province, the nation’s pollution “ground zero,” which is home to seven of the 10 cities that are ranked worst in China for air pollution. Surrounding Beijing and with its industries centered around coal and steel, Hebei gets the blame for many of the Chinese capital’s headline-grabbing “airpocalypses.”

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