Dubai: You can’t breathe the air, you can’t drink the water — China’s pollution woes have been splattered all over newspapers and websites in the past few months, and they’re leaving a trail of sludge and smog behind.

News of dead pigs and ducks found floating in rivers that are used by local people for drinking and washing has raised alarm about the quality of water in the country, while in January the capital, Beijing, experienced incredibly high levels of air pollution.

The Economist reported that the city’s Air Quality Index reading was at almost twice the level considered dangerous for all people — 755.

The index does not normally read levels beyond 500.

The impact of such problems on China’s citizens and residents cannot be ignored.

Dr Yuting Wang, an associate professor of sociology at the American University of Sharjah and a Chinese citizen, visited Beijing recently and said that the air was “unpleasantly gray.”

“My friends were afraid to take their kids outside to play,” she told Gulf News, noting the ways in which worsening environmental conditions have become a part of everyday life in the city. Radio and subway announcements advise residents on whether they should go out and whether they should wear surgical masks, and the masks themselves are being incorporated into outfits and style – Wang said she noticed some people walking around with pink surgical masks. In fact, air pollution has become such a normal part of Beijing life that the Los Angeles Times says that the Chinese now refer to the “Beijiing Cough” that results from exposure to the poor air.

Health issues

The ability of Beijing’s residents to adapt to the unclean atmosphere is impressive, considering the impact it has on their health.

The Beijing region has levels of PM2.5 — particulate matter in the air that is smaller than 2.5 micrometers — which carry a number of pollutants including toxic heavy metals and microorganisms like bacteria and viruses. This is two to four times higher than World Health Organisation-recommended levels.

On the worst day in January, The Economist reported that the Chinese government announced levels of PM2.5 reaching over 700 micrograms per cubic metre, while WHO considers anything over 25 “unacceptable”.

And with good reason.

PM2.5 can enter the blood stream when inhaled, leading to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as contribute to cancer, according to a Greenpeace East Asia article on the impact of PM2.5 on premature deaths — the particles contributed to thousands of premature deaths in China’s major cities, the study discovered.

Awareness of pollution and the health problems it creates is rising, though.

Xinran Zhang, who was most recently in Beijing between September 2012 and March 2013 and is currently living in London, says she’s noticed increased awareness of pollution among her friends and family in China.

“I can feel that people around me are discussing and taking actions about the pollutions more often than past years,” she told Gulf News in an email. “They are becoming more and more concerned, alert and responsible.”

“It is an essential phase of the development of China. It seems like [it is] hitting its peak these years, but I can see many people and organizations working hard on the issues,” Zhang adds.

But that may be truer in Beijing.

Because it is the capital and a major metropolitan area, it is in the media spotlight, forcing the Chinese government to acknowledge the health and environmental issues it faces and attempt to combat them.

Urbanized residents are also in a better position to negotiate with the government to strengthen regulations on polluting factories and clean up heavily polluted areas.

Smaller cities and towns are not as lucky.

According to a 2006 Blacksmith Institute list of the world’s most polluted places, in China, the towns of Linfen and Tianying are most at risk — Linfen for air pollution, and Tianying for lead pollution.

The link between manufacturing and government has been a crucial point in the fight against pollution and environmental degradation in China.

Wang says that many large state-owned companies own farms that produce food, which then gets distributed to the companies’ employees.

This means that those employed by state companies are assured clean food products from a trusted source, and so have less of an interest in the pollution that affects the quality of food and water of the everyday person.

“People who are in power, if they’re not affected by the immediate threat of environmental pollution, will not act,” Wang says.

Non-profit organisations can help reach out to places suffering from pollution and draw attention to the issues, but ultimately, Wang says, it is the government that must act.

“You need that political power from the government,” she says. “Without those stamps it’s almost impossible.”