Aug 08, 2013

    Fazed by China health woes

    The New York Times

    I RECENTLY found myself hauling through San Francisco International Airport a bag filled with 12 boxes of milk powder and a cardboard container with two sets of air filters.

    I was heading to my home in Beijing at the end of a work trip, taking with me what have become two of the most sought-after items among parents there, and which were desperately needed in my own household.

    China is the world's second-largest economy, but residents of its boom cities and a growing number of rural regions question the safety of the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.

    It is as if they were living in the Chinese equivalent of the Chernobyl or Fukushima nuclear-disaster areas.

    I find myself wondering: Is China doing irreparable harm to me and my family?

    The environmental hazards there are legion, and the consequences might not manifest themselves for years or even decades. The risks are magnified for young children.

    That means my journalist wife, Tini, and I are subjecting our nine-month-old daughter to the same risks that are striking fear into residents of cities across northern China, and grappling with the guilt of doing so.

    Like them, we take precautions. In Beijing, high-tech air purifiers are as coveted as luxury sedans.

    Soon after I was posted to Beijing in 2008, I set up a couple of European-made air purifiers. In early April, I took out one of the filters for the first time to check it - the layer of dust was as thick as moss on a forest floor.

    Every morning, when I roll out of bed, I check an app on my mobile phone that tells me the air-quality index reading as measured by the United States Embassy, whose monitoring device is near my home.

    I check to see whether I need to turn on the purifiers, and whether I could take my daughter out.

    Statistics released by the Ministry of Environmental Protection last Wednesday revealed that air quality in Beijing was deemed unsafe for more than 60 per cent of the days in the first half of this year.

    I want my child to grow up appreciating the outdoors: sunsets and bird calls, and the smell of grass or the shape of clouds. That will be impossible if we live for many more years in Beijing.

    This year, new data released from the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study revealed that China's outdoor pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010, or 40 per cent of the worldwide total.

    Food safety is the other issue weighing on us. The food catastrophe that most frightened parents was the 2008 milk scandal.

    Following my San Francisco trip, my wife and I realised that our supply of formula was dwindling. We sent e-mail to friends we thought might soon be travelling to China, asking for volunteers to be "mules".

    The anxieties do not end with milk. Our daughter has begun eating solids, so that means many more questions for us about how we source our food.

    Last weekend, I went with a friend to visit a village home an hour's drive north-east of Beijing.

    He and his wife wanted to lease it as a weekend house, but I was more interested in gauging whether I could use the garden to grow our own vegetables. I know of some people who have done that.

    Each day that passes in Beijing makes it harder to discern the fine line between paranoia and precaution.

    Six years ago, when I was in my home town of Alexandria, Virginia, packing for my move to China, my mother handed me several tubes of toothpaste. She had read stories of toxic toothpaste made in China.

    I put the tubes back in my parents' bathroom.

    When I visit these days, my mother on occasion still gives me toothpaste to bring back to Beijing, and I no longer hesitate to pack it in my bag.

    The writer is a correspondent in China for The New York Times.