Shanghai Considers Providing Face Masks to Citizens


The winter of 2013-14 is rapidly becoming known as one of the worst in living memory for citizens of Shanghai, and not due to the cold.

Months of air pollution nearly constantly at dangerous levels have caused widespread discomfort among the citizens of China’s financial hub. Levels of PM2.5 (an airborne particle linked to numerous human health hazards such as lung cancer and cardiopulmonary mortality) have fluctuated for months, occasionally rising to off-the-chart levels.

As a result, face masks have become a significantly more common sight on the streets of Shanghai and surrounding cities in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. Many citizens have urged the government to take action.

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At the 12th annual members meeting of the People’s Political Consultative Conference of Shanghai, Representative Zhu Junbo suggested that the government provide face masks for citizens most vulnerable to the effects of air pollution.

The details of how the policy would be implemented remain unclear. Zhu suggested that masks first be given to schoolchildren and outdoor workers, as they are among the most at risk. The masks would be provided through the public health care system, other government entities, or places of employment.

Whereas Beijing has dealt with record levels of suffocating smog for years, other cities around China are reacting with outrage as the pollution issue becomes more visible in places once celebrated for (comparatively) uncontaminated environments. Last year Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter and commonly considered the primary voice of Chinese netizens, was flooded with calls from all over the country to solve the issue of polluted water. The outcries arose from pictures of garbage being dragged from a fresh water source in Rui’An, Zhejiang province.

Some citizens, conversely, have had a calmer approach to the rise in pollution levels, seeing it as a fleeting issue. “I’ll buy a mask, but I don’t think it’s too necessary,” one anonymous office worker in Shanghai’s Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park told The Diplomat. Born and raised in Shanghai, she and many like her see days of yellow skies as a passing phenomenon.

“Two days of this is already unheard of,” she says. She has refused her company’s offer to purchase a supply of masks to last through the winter.

Others think the problem of pollution is no longer a localized issue, and economic pressures to keep production high guarantee that it won’t go away overnight. Numerous officials and other public figures have echoed the sentiments of Zhu Junbo that the government should take a more direct involvement in cleaning up China’s rapidly deteriorating environment.

Beijing has in fact taken steps to reduce its pollution, shutting down a number of factories, including those in high-demand industries such as cement, in its surrounding areas. Many surmise that these factories have relocated to more southern provinces, displacing the problem rather than eradicating it.

Member of the Society of Endocrinology Wang Zhili made a public statement before an audience of Communist Party members urging the government to issue face masks to all vulnerable groups in the country where it was needed, and critically evaluate the risks versus the benefits of continued high production.

Mayor of Shanghai Yang Xiong addressed the nation on January 19, stating that he intends to complete the three-year environmental plan by achieved stricter government control over pollution. He stated that “In 2014, Shanghai will complete construction of efficient coal-burning plants as well as denitration factories; increase the level of cleanliness of coal burning, as well as provide alternative energy resources, eliminate 70,000 high-emission vehicles from the streets, and gain strict control of dust producing machinery throughout the city.”

While these and other actions are a great start to reducing air pollution in some of China’s major cities, long-term solutions have yet to be adopted. The road to a universally clean environment looks to be a difficult one for China.

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