Katrin Bennhold, a Times correspondent in London, cycles daily through smoggy parts of the city to reach work. “There are days in the summer when the heat and the rush-hour fumes hang over the stationary black cabs and double-decker buses like an invisible blanket,” she wrote in an email. A year ago, her doctor warned her about it. “He said the damage to my respiratory system of biking for 30 minutes, twice a day, almost certainly outweighs the health benefit. That came as a shock.”
For Ellen Barry, The Times’s South Asia bureau chief, who is based in New Delhi, the smog’s arrival is “a true disaster.”
“When you land at the airport and they open the hatch on the aircraft,” she says, “the smell hits you like a wall while you’re still in your seat. A strong chemical burning smell. That’s the smell of Delhi through the winter.”
Ellen and her husband run medical-quality air purifiers around the clock, in every room of their home. Their two daughters wear masks on their way to and from school. Most days from November to February, the school doesn’t allow students to play outside. And it is introducing a new vacation that will allow foreign families to leave Delhi for the worst, most dangerous weeks, at the beginning of November.
“But these solutions are contingent on having resources,” Ellen adds, “which is not true for the vast majority of people who live here. So you protect your family with the terrible consciousness that the people who surround you cannot.”
In Beijing, the situation is similar.
“Even those colleagues who go to great lengths to protect the lungs of their children find it can be difficult to keep the effects of the smog at bay,” says Edward Wong, a former Beijing bureau chief who returned to the United States late last year. One reason for the move was his 3-year-old daughter’s hacking cough, despite air purifiers, that disappeared in cleaner places.
For parents, guilt is unavoidable, but families don’t always have a choice of where they live. And although scientists and public health officials know smog is unhealthy, no one can say exactly how much exposure is a problem, and how much of a problem. Should one stay only three years? Five? Ten?
For Katrin, the hunt is on for a good face mask that can catch pollution particles that travel deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream.
We’ve tried everything in Beijing, but in reality only one thing will work: cleaning up the air.