When the smog rolls in, many Chinese residents immediately reach for their masks, but for one group of courageous women their job is to dive right in, nose-first, and take a great big whiff.
CGTN, the international arm of state media outlet CCTV, recently aired a report focused on a dedicated team of so-called “pollution sniffers” in Hebei’s hazy capital of Shijiazhuang who are tasked with analyzing air pollution by smell.
Each day, dozens of bags of air taken from sites across the city are brought into the city’s environment monitoring center for these ladies to sniff. While you might think that China’s extensive network of automatic air quality monitoring sites would be sufficient, it turns out that in some ways technology just doesn’t measure up to the human nose.
“Responding to reports on pollution has to be done quickly,” says Wang Haiying, senior air pollution sniffer. “Using your nose is a quick way of determining where the pollution exists, and how bad it is. Especially when you have no idea about the source or the level of the pollution.”
Considering the nature of their work some may worry about potential hazards to the sniffers’ health. However, Wang brushes off these concerns. “The danger is real, but it’s not that serious,” she says.
In case you too want to apply to become a pollution sniffer, you should know that the position does not require a keen sense of smell, just an official license provided by local authorities. Some sniffers take their job more seriously than others, swearing off makeup or even spicy food to ensure that their sense of smell remains pure.
In smoggy Shijiazhung, these sniffers are presented with a veritable feast for the olfactory sense. The Hebei capital consistently rates as one of China’s most heavily polluted cities, including a first place finish in the first three months of this year.
Two months ago, to kick off China’s top legislative meetings in Beijing, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang rattled off a list of upcoming environmental enforcement measures, vowing to “make our skies blue again.” It’s not clear when that day will come, but in the meantime these ladies will keep on sniffing.
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