On a recent Sunday - a day on which you might reasonably expect any city to be off-duty, or at least taking a breather - you couldn't take a deep breath in Shanghai because the air was opaque with pollution.
Imagine a fierce melange of Southern California wildfire smoke laced with a soupcon of diesel fumes and cement-factory dust, and you come close to the reality of daily air quality in Shanghai, a sprawling, bustling megacity
I grew up in Los Angeles, a city with a history of smog so foul that it hurt to breathe, even indoors. Shanghai brought back those painful memories, and then some.
From the window of a room on the 40th floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, all one could see were skyscrapers - or skyscrapers under construction. The view extends for about 10 city blocks, but then a brownish-gray smudge obscures everything.
If Chicago is the city that works, then Shanghai is the city that never stops working. Day and night, the racket of jackhammers and the din of diesel equipment are ever present, part of China's experiment with capitalism writ large.
Along with the noise are all the dust and smog that the machinery spews forth, joined by the particulates blown in from the thousands of low-grade coal plants needed to power the city.
For the 36 hours I was in Shanghai, I never took more than a shallow breath, and my throat was raw for a week afterward. Nearly everyone in our group ended up with some form of respiratory distress or sinus infection.
Shanghai is not even the most polluted city in China. That honor belongs to Beijing, according to the European Space Agency's satellite monitoring of global environmental conditions. But Beijing, like Los Angeles, is ringed by mountains that create a basin to trap the smog.
Shanghai is on a coastal plain, which means the smog is not held in place. Yet there it is, every day. That's a scary thought when one breezy or rainy day is enough to clear the skies over Los Angeles.
In 2001, the World Bank reported that China is home to 16 of the planet's 20 most polluted cities. China's pollution has increased by about 50 percent during the past decade and could get worse, according to the European Space Agency.
Here it comes
China's pollution does not respect borders. Studies by the EPA and Harvard University have found that large percentages of ozone, mercury, pesticides and particulate matter in U.S. skies have made the 6,000-mile journey from China.
Yep, that foul air rises skyward, hitches a ride on the jet stream and parks itself in the Western United States and as far east as New England.
I was appalled when the United States refused to approve the Kyoto Protocol, which would have required America to reduce production of carbon dioxide to below 1990 levels during 2008-12.
As the leader of the free world, America should lead by example to clean the environment despite the economic cost.
Which is worse?
Then again, China has approved the Kyoto Protocol, and the pollution there is so bad that 70 percent of the country's lakes and rivers are not suitable for human contact, according to China's own Academy of Sciences.
Which is the bigger hypocrite? America, which refuses to approve the Kyoto Protocol, or China, which approved the treaty but continues to spew poisons into the environment under exemptions from many of its strictures?
China is well on the road to becoming a global economic power. Unfortunately, it's doing so at the expense of its citizens' health and the health of other nations as well.
You may e-mail Mark Rechtin at [email protected]