Since 1999 when Beijing started producing air quality reports, officials have referred to the crud in the air as simply wu, or "fog," even though the climate doesn't really trigger ground fog. Last month, city officials started using the word mai or "haze" when they issue warnings. But few people understood this new lingo. The first medium-level haze warning went out in early February, meaning that citizens should avoid non-essential outdoor activity.

I first moved in the Los Angeles basin in 1979 and received a quick lesson in "smog alerts." Stage 1 was bad, Stage 2 worse and Stage 3 was choke-city. I never went through a Stage 3 alert--the last recorded one was in 1974--but I did experience a few Stage 2s. Through all the efforts of the air quality officials in Southern California, including imposing the nation's harshest pollution controls on vehicles, we haven't had a Stage 2 since 1988 and a Stage 1 alert since 2003.

Beijing isn't going to be so lucky, and using euphemisms certainly isn't going to help. Worldwide attention seems to be pressuring Chinese officials to clean up the air. They are hosting the 2008 Olympics and certainly don't want to put on a toxic show. A good move would be acknowledge the situation with the proper term, wumai, or smog, and be honest about the levels.

[Source: The Economist]

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