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Chinese coal-mining city is world's most polluted

By David Feinberg, VBS Correspondent
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The dirtiest place on the planet
  • The city of Linfen has a permanent toxic smog hovering over the city
  • Air quality there is the equivalent of smoking three packs of cigarettes a day
  • Linfen produces and consumes large amount of coal
  • China
  • The World Bank Group
  • Linfen

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Brooklyn, New York (VBS.TV) -- In 2008, the world cast its eyes on Beijing, the sprawling Chinese metropolis that was set to play host to the Summer Olympics.

At VBS.TV, we caught wind of another story that soon had our full attention. As Chinese officials were taking unprecedented and often controversial measures to sanitize the notoriously foul Beijing air, much of the rest of the country was still covered in a thick blanket of noxious smog.

According to a World Bank survey at the time, 16 of the world's 20 most-polluted cities were in China.

At the top of that list is the city of Linfen, a coal-mining and manufacturing hub in the heart of Shanxi Province. Within weeks, we assembled a film crew and went off to the landlocked province in northern China to find out more.

After touching down in Beijing and making a quick visit to the Olympic countdown clock, we set out to visit the single most polluted place on Earth, hoping to place the dubious ranking into a human context.

Despite the Chinese government's promise of a marathon-friendly city, the Beijing air at the time was still plenty oppressive. But nothing could have prepared us for the dystopian scenario we encountered during our week in Linfen and the surrounding area.

See the rest of Toxic Linfen at VBS.TV

Before the trip, I had researched thousands of images of the pollution that plagues Linfen and Shanxi province, but to see it in person is, quite simply, devastating.

The sun sets before it is supposed to, disappearing into a curtain of smog above the true horizon. Residents scavenge the roadside for coal that falls from the seemingly endless cavalcade of coal trucks, gathering it with bare hands. Schoolchildren play against the nonstop backdrop of billowing exhaust. Many of the elderly have trouble speaking between gasps of widespread emphysema.

Residents of Linfen are aware of the growing threat the polluted air and water pose, and some of them have left the city. Most, however, have no choice but to stay.

The infamy of a No. 1 ranking in the news media eventually motivated China to focus more attention on cleaning up Linfen, but unfortunately, the scene of overwhelming pollution is still rampant in many parts of the country.

As easy as it is to criticize China's bold industrial development, our visit was also a clear reminder of the same pattern of manufacturing and consumption that has occurred elsewhere since the dawn of the Industrial Age.

In China, it just happens to be on a much grander scale and on the back of a globalized economy that has rendered China into an assembly line for the world. The most compelling research I came across to this end are recently published studies showing particulate matter from China's factories and mines reaching across the Pacific Ocean to North America's West Coast.

China obviously has some cleaning up to do, and more importantly, some major strategizing to achieve a sustainable economy.

Our futures are inextricably linked. Back in New York City, the coal mines of Shanxi Province feel worlds away, but as oil now gushes ceaselessly into our own backyard, we should pay even more attention to Linfen if we don't want it to be a glimpse into our own future.