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First-hand Encounter with Environmental Pollution

As an international student, I travel back to Taiwan from time to time whenever I am free from university, which is usually twice a year.  I am cognisant of the fact that the temperature has been increasing every year, but staying indoors with the air conditioning on was just a convenient method to remain coolly ignorant of the problem.

My stay in New Zealand has definitely desensitised my sense of recognising the damage I might have made to the environment. I grew up in the concrete jungle, used to its smoky smell, and familiar with the unsanitary side of the convenient urban life. Moving to NZ, my eyes have been opened to this clean and lovely place. The longer my stay, the more I’ve taken natural resources for granted occasionally, being forfeited with some of economical but not necessarily “green” choices. Studying biotechnology, I have always been aware of the issues that impacted the surrounding pollution and environment, but had not influenced by them in my daily life. At least not until two years ago.

I thought something was bizarre about the mistiness on the Taiwanese horizon when the plane descended below the stratosphere. However, I didn’t think too much about it. I stayed indoors in the airport, got on my parents’ car and went home in the Capital city. As soon as I got home, hot tears involuntarily rushed down my face and my eyes stung; not tears of joy at being home at long last, something much more bitter.

 A day later, breathing became a luxury as my lungs burned and melted a little every time I inhaled. Never could I have imagined my body having such a hostile reaction to my home of 15 years.

My eyes’ irritation, allergic reaction, and lung infection was the consequence of being exposed to smog. Smog, a word derived from smoke and fog, is produced by a set of complex photochemical reactions involving volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and ground-level ozone. These pollutants come from many sources especially automobile exhaust, power plants, factories, and many consumer products, including paint, hairspray, charcoal starter fluid, chemical solvents, and even plastic packaging.  Every winter, along with the formation of sandstorms developed from the Loess Plateau in the northwest of China, smog is formed and brought to East and Southeast Asia with the help of monsoon.

The consequence is as bad as it sounds. Besides having a lung infection and red eyes for one week, what I saw was exactly nothing- visibility was only within one kilometer. It definitely looked like a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie. Smog filled up the somewhat empty streets because the city government reported atmospheric particulate matter was too high for people to be exposed in for too long. The trees grown by the government lined up on the side of the streets with fore-planned even gaps just seemed lifeless and ironic in the mist. Moreover, people in China, especially in the major cities, had it worse. Day turned into night, although the cities haven’t fallen into complete darkness. The smog trapped and directly reflected the city lights, transforming the sky or mist into grey purple. Just one thing was certain, that there had been no glint of sunlight for days. Meanwhile, people were still trapped indoors, and consuming more energy extravagantly as per usual.

Technology is thriving. There are so many simple solutions to improve our quality of life; however, there is definitely no effortless way to repair the consequential environmental detriment. Most of us will forget that for every minute we look into our screens, we will have lost 50 soccer fields of forest globally, and discarded five tons of waste into the New Zealand environment, etc. There will be neither warning signs nor constant reminders about every action we take which contributes to our growing carbon footprint, or to wasting valuable natural resources. When will we all be persistently aware of the seriousness of this global issue? Before our feet are all soaked in the soaring seas and our children trapped in the acidified rain? When will we all stop hiding behind technology and face these problems? It’s about time we start using our knowledge for destruction prevention, environmental rehabilitation, and even just general daily reminders.