Is the Smog Out?

Christy Schneider reflects on air pollution, health, and science.

By Christy Schneider | December 21, 2016
Smog in Tiananmen Square

A monument hidden by smog in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

China Xinhua News

The most postcard-worthy view of any city is often its skyline, dotted with recognizable buildings we love and identify with as a place. The Space Needle pops up from Seattle; the Empire State Building represents New York just as the Eiffel Tower is Paris. But what if a familiar skyline disappeared or seemed to fade away?

It happens, and weather is often the culprit. Fog and rain, for example, routinely shroud the view of Mt. Rainier from Seattle. A Twitter account named Is the Mountain Out? posts images showing whether Rainier is “out” or “in.”

Beijing’s skyline is often obscured by dangerous levels of smog that fill air and lungs with particulate matter. In response to an environment that is both disorienting and a health hazard, some people have photographed the skyline, then have drawn in the hidden buildings. Reporting from Beijing, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne remarked, “For a lifelong Beijing resident, to look at a building whose edges are blunted by smog is, in effect, to consider your own mortality.” World Bank statistics cited by Hawthorne show that outdoor air pollution in China causes 350,000 to 400,000 premature deaths each year.

I work on the sixth floor of CHF, and my view of the U.S. Customs House is usually clear. Checking the local air-quality index for this relatively dry winter day, particulate matter is listed as 58, of moderate concern. On the day this post was published, Beijing’s air quality is rated at 458, in the hazardous range. Part of my job at the Museum at CHF has been to find methods to visualize and represent the effects of chemistry in our environment; one such project was Particle Falls, a real-time visualization of air-quality data projected onto the wall of the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia.

I worked with the artist, Andrea Polli, community partners, and staff from CHF’s Institute for Research to present this installation, which included a background of falling blue light onto which spots of fiery color emerged and crackled. The spots represented the fine particulate matter detected by the nearby air monitor. When a bus passed by, the blue falls were speckled with orange and yellow. Fewer bright spots meant fewer particles in the air. (Polli’s project was recently presented in Paris during the U.N. climate talks.)

Particle Falls is an artistic way to “see” air, but it is also part of a scientific tradition that uses instruments to view and analyze air. This tradition includes instruments in our collection, such as the Beckman hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide tester used to analyze car exhaust, which was developed to measure smog in Los Angeles in the 1950s. When I look at the sky, I think of this heritage of artists, inventors, scientists, and regulatory agencies, such as the EPA.

We take between 17,280 and 23,040 breaths a day. I hope your many breaths are easy and full of days with low particulate matter, especially if you live in Beijing or one of the many places affected by air pollution.