Plumes of Black Smoke

Smog is bad, yes? We can all agree on that? Good.

Some smog is egregious, as in New Delhi where you can feel particulate pollution down the ole windpipe. That’s not good. There’s also Beijing, where finding a good restaurant is more dependent on echolocation than Google Maps.

Then there’s smog in the US, which certainly exists in some areas. Los Angeles was notorious for this in the 80s and 90s, as the mountains created a bowl of stagnant carcinogens. And other times, in places the globe over, plumes of black smock burst from truck tailpipes. Some of these places have strong environmental protections and others don’t. This is the thrust of this essay.

greylok smog
Smog over Mt. Greylock in Massachusetts. The PM2.5 reading was in the 30s that day.

How do (some) young Chinese perceive smog?

(I’ll couch this by saying, yet again, categorical statements are useful if not imprecise; I apologize.)

When in China, many of my students, who were still 17 or 18 smoked cigarettes in between every class. The US has had loads of public education in the past and present, and as a result, prevalence of smoking among American adults is down to around 15%, according to the CDC.

I am an advocate of smoke-free lifestyles, and I need not propagate further here. The adverse effects are self-evident.

In any case, I would often ask my students why they would smoke, when even the Chinese government produces material urging the youth to stop. Their response was simple.

“The smog is already terrible. Smoking a cigarette is a breath of fresh air.”

Albeit slightly hyperbolic, this is pretty indicative of attitudes toward pollution, summarily expressed in one word: blasé.

Many people don’t care about the horribly damaging effects of nicotine and smoke, because relative to the smog, it makes no difference in their eyes.

Smog in China

You needn’t travel very far in China to find examples of bad pollution. I was once driving through the countryside in Zhongshan, Guangdong Province, and the heart of the issue revealed itself.

The south is generally known for better air quality than its northern provincial neighbors. This might be true in a relative sense. Simultaneously, the smog is still objectively bad, as measured by PM2.5. At the time of writing, Zhongshan currently measures 61, which is above the WHO’s recommended threshold. It’s not terrible by any measure; it’s simply not low.

If the south is bad and denizens still justify it’s okay-ness, therein lies the problem. People are content with air that is still substandard. You become numb to a problem, the way American citizens can lose perspective on the alarming rate of school shootings. I’m comparing apples and oranges in terms of content, but the analogy for numbness holds true.

You can begin to distinguish the reason behind gray days: those caused by clouds and those caused by factories. It seems obvious at first which is which, but you quickly realize there’s huge overlap.

On a seemingly overcast day, some Chinese friends and I drove in rural parts of Zhongshan and whipped past a factory which prompted me to check the pollution rating for the day. It read 117, which is unhealthy – again by WHO standards which are accepted as valid even in the Chinese community.

My friends stared at me in disbelief. We live in the south. The air isn’t that bad. It’s just foggy today. That website can’t be correct. Excuses rained down. The reading is wrong.

Unfortunately, it was true, and as proof I gently pointed them toward a factory not a hundred yards away, with toxic exhaust gushing from a pipe. There’s the culprit.

They realized, at least momentarily, how deceiving air quality can be. It might look like fog and really be smog, or vice versa.

All sorts of moments like this emerge in China. Factories with smoke, trucks with exhaust, businesses with fumes. Not great at times.

So what about in the US?

Los Angeles in the 80s         [photo credit:]

Is there smog in the US?

Many Americans who find out I lived in China are incredulous how I handled the levels of pollution in the Middle Kingdom. How did you go outside? Did you wear a mask? How many times a day did you die?

To young Americans, smog is not an immediate reality. L.A. gray skies thirty years ago was an immediacy many have conveniently forgotten. But even today, if you hike up a mountain, you can see a hazy horizon. If you jog around the lake in Chicago, you can sometimes see Michigan while others you cannot. There’s a reason for that. While American smog doesn’t come close to Chinese, it’s still there.

But you can find signs of pollution in the United States, some obvious, some otherwise. In a wonderful presentation-cum-documentary by Chai Jing titled Under the Dome, she details the disparity of strictness in emissions standards between the US and China.

One official describes that essentially 95% of trucks abide by the law, either out of a sense of duty for the environment or by economic incentive. This is great, especially compared to Asia’s largest car market, but the corollary necessitates an unfortunate reality: 5% of trucks wouldn’t pass emissions standards in the US.

This might seem high, but do pay attention to trucks and buses on the road, and you will notice more readily ones that don’t quite seem above-par. A steady fountain of black exhaust will emit from more than a few vehicles, you will notice. Or even some sedans will vroom by with slight yet palpable fumes. This is where the US can still make strides.

While environmental law is stronger in the US, there are many hints that our transpacific brethren are leading the world in green technologies. The tides are changing, horrendous pun shamelessly intended.


Yes, smog in China is bad. Period. No amount of rationalization can or will change that at the moment. That being said, the US is not perfect, and while it’s easy to point blame elsewhere, this country can still fix its vehicles and factories.

Having black plumes of smoke anywhere isn’t good. Let’s all do our part.


What do you think? Am I overemphasizing smog in the US and underplaying Chinese hazy skies? Let me know in the comments below.

Like what you’re reading on China? Check out some other related articles in: The China Chronicles!!

And then sometimes China looks like this….




3 thoughts on “Plumes of Black Smoke

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  1. It is amazing how quickly humans adapt to certain conditions. Not knowing anything different, our particular environments become our norm. It’s interesting to note from your post as well that when we do become accustomed, we accept our own perception as truth rather than any other measuring standards.

    Liked by 1 person

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