Foreign Correspondents as They Live and Breathe

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Times Insider shares insights into how we work at The New York Times. In this article that we originally published in March, Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a Beijing-based Times correspondent, compares notes and guilt trips with Times reporters around the world who have moved with their families to smog-laden news hubs.

Air matters. So when the conversation over a recent lunch in The Times’s Beijing bureau turned to the air pollution that regularly suffuses this city with chemicals and despondency, Ian Johnson, a China correspondent, took out his phone to check Air Matters, an app that measures air quality based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index, which scores the air from 0 to 500. Over 300 and the air is “hazardous.”

It was at 169, “unhealthy” by American standards and several times the World Health Organization’s recommended daily level.

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Air pollution has long been a serious problem here in Beijing — for citizens and The Times’s foreign correspondents alike. It is worst in developing nations, particularly in Asia, where economies are growing fast and countries often have lax regulations, but smog also affects Europe, making headlines in London, Paris and Warsaw. Like Beijing, New Delhi and Tehran experience smog that far exceeds W.H.O. limits. Dirty air contributes to the deaths of millions of people each year, according to a recent Health Effects Institute report, “State of Global Air.”

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.