Smog as a Romance

The term "smog" was coined by Henry Antoine Des Voeux in 1905 to refer to the foggy smoke appearing in large cities, which was in London called the "pea-soup fog". This was mainly the result of a mix of smoke coming from inner city coal firing and providing condensation nuclei for the humid air. It was the atmospheric backdrop for many Victorian settings, including of course the unforgotten Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories and the short stories and novels featuring the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and his companion Dr. Watson. For me also Jack the Ripper would be much less mystical without smog in the London of the 1880s. Likewise other characters. Monet also painted London in pea-soup-fog, as shown below.

Unfortunately, my Chinese is far from good enough to trace what impact the Beijing smog has on Chinese literature, arts and culture. In modern Chinese literature, there might even be scenic descriptions of smog heavy alleys of Hutongs, or novel protagonists gazing into the haze from their office in the xyz floor? Smog in Beijing can be very "atmospheric", and this I do not mean in the metrological sense of the meaning. 

I know it might sound strange for some to see smog as a "cultural heritage", but am thinking of starting a photo project on Smog in Beijing. Perhaps in some years nobody remembers how it looked like really and it is only a haze in collective memory of the Beijingers. Of course, I do not go so far to say that it is one of the cultural heritages that has to be maintained. To avoid misunderstanding: it is pollution and has a seriously negative impact on public health. But it is a historical phase of many cities of the world. And for me for example the yellow days of Differdange (Luxembourg), are as much part of my childhood as the fresh breeze in the Westerwald (a forest region in Germany).

However, I might have to wait for winter until I really have the haze for my photo project, as the summer smog is different, much less visible, but actually much more harmful, as it is the result of photochemical processes breaking primary pollutants into harmful substances. This is why even on a presumably clear day, you may end up with itchy red eyes, coughing, or even with a headache.

One of these substances is tropospherical Ozone, which is produced in a two step process via a peroxy radical from Carbon Monoxide and NOX:

OH + CO → H + CO2
H + O2 → HO2

These then react with NOX to ozone in a second phase: 

HO2 + NO → OH + NO2
NO2 + hν → NO + O
O + O2 + N2 → O3 + N2

This results in a net effect of

    CO + 2O2 → CO2 + O3

Tropospheric Ozone itself is a good indicator for the level of photochemical activity in a polluted area, as it can be monitored relatively easy. It is usually degrading during night time, again reacting with primary pollutants. Interestingly, as the photochemical production of Ozone takes time, the pollutant moves with the wind into less polluted areas and there might not find enough primary pollutants to degrade. This is why you may find high ozone levels far away from cities and also a sustained level during night time in the countryside. Sometimes even the "rural nighttime Ozone" then travels back with the nocturnal cold air flows into the city. For Beijing though, this is not so much a relevant process, because the suburbs and countryside are also heavily polluted and have enough potential to break down photooxidants during nighttime.

A very interesting group of photochemical chemicals are the Peroxyacetyl Nitrates, as they are really aggressive irritants to fauna and flora. They are the result of photochemical reactions with Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) as you find them in exhaust fumes. If you really feel sick after a sunny day sitting in a Hutong Courtyard house in Beijing, then you might have experienced them.

They appear after long sequences of reactions which for example have the general reaction net like:

Hydrocarbons + O2 + NO2 + light → CH3COOONO2

or more general CxHyO3 + NO2 → CxHyO3NO2

The Beijing Governent makes majoy efforts to clean up the air of the city by improving emission standards, better traffic management and also decreasing industrial and power generation emissions. I believe I am just here at the right time to capture the last phase of it. I am thinking what name it will get in the common memory of the city. "Pea-soup-fog" is unlikely. And even I know it has to go as soon as possbile, I will miss the smell of sulfur and dust when I return into a cleaner Beijing one day.