China's Under the Dome Doc Hits at Heart of Country's Pollution Problems: Pervasive Worry

03/11/2015 11:54 am ET | Updated May 11, 2015

On an autumn afternoon in Beijing last year, a day when the sky was blue, which rarely happens in China's capital, one of the most polluted cities on the planet, I had coffee with a young Chinese woman, a former journalism student of mine at a university where I taught reporting in Shanghai.

We meet occasionally to catch up, and on this occasion, she told me that her mother had been ill, had had some sort of tumor, maybe cancer, I cannot quite recall. Then she went onto tell me that doctors had recently found a lump in her breast. That it was benign, luckily, but was there nevertheless.

She is 26.

What caused the tumor is unclear, she said, adding that she believed that to avoid further illness, she needed to have a more positive outlook on life. Negativity, she says, causes health problems.

"I just need to be happier," she said. "Then maybe I won't get sick."

I recall this story now because of a documentary released in China a few days ago by a former reporter for China Central Television, or CCTV, one of the biggest state-run media outlets here. This journalist, Chai Jing, produced an in-depth film on the human costs of air pollution in China. It is called Under the Dome and has been viewed tens of millions of times since its release. And, in a country where the severity of pollution and its impact on human life is usually brushed over by the government and hardly reported by state-controlled media, some officials are publicly comparing the film to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, a 1962 book on pesticide use in the United States and its impact on humans.

In the West, it is no secret that pollution in China is bad. Foreign media frequently report problems, ranging from food safety scandals to tainted waterways and air sometimes so bad that breathing it is akin to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. In a country so far away from Americans, or those in other Western countries, China's environmental problems seem big. And, they are. But the human cost is less tangible or even understood, which is why I am writing about my friend, the 26-year-old with a lump in her breast.

I have lived in China for over six years, and air pollution and other environmental problems are always present, but in the backdrop. You think about them, but then you don't. You breathe them in, and hope that you will not be affected.

But, on that day that I met with the young woman, I realized that she is but one of many, many friends or friends of friends I have here who are suffering or have a family member who is suffering from health problems, usually cancer of some sort, and sometimes at ages so young that hope has just begun, life is still unfolding and terminal illnesses seem many years away.

And so, I started to make a mental tally.

Of course, I am not a medical professional. I do not know the intricate details of the health problems of those I know who have been impacted by illness. I cannot say definitively any of it was from a bad environment. But, compared to my friends in the West, the number of people here I know who are sick, seems overwhelming.

There was the young professor, a colleague of mine where I taught in Shanghai, who lost her battle to breast cancer when she was just 32. My roommate, a woman from a rural village in Guangdong Province, whose aunt, in her 40s, died from exposure to chemicals in a factory where she worked. My friend Matt, his English name, whose mother in her early 50s, just finished radiation treatments for cancer. Another friend, Jack, also his English name, a migrant worker from central China, whose wife miscarried their second child for unknown reasons.

Alice, my Chinese teacher, whose mother died in her early sixties, from cancer. A month after her mother died, Alice's husband's mother died from another terminal illness. Rocky, another friend, whose mother unexpectedly passed away from cancer, in her 50s. And Angel, a young woman who lives in Guangxi, a province in southern China, who was born with brittle bone disease. Around 30, she is only about two-and-a-half feet tall, has bones about as strong as twigs and can never have children. Nafisa, a baby I met in 2009 from Xinjiang Province, was born with her bladder outside of her body, a rare birth defect.

Then, there is me. Before I even turned 30, doctors found what they say are, so far, small and harmless cysts, on my thyroid and in my cervix. One year, I got so sick with bronchitis, doctors in Beijing gave me an inhaler. I have never had asthma in my life.

In Under the Dome, Chai Jing, its creator, says she decided to make the film after she had her first child who was born with a benign tumor. She says the tumor was linked to her exposure, while pregnant, to pollution. Whether there is medical evidence that this is the case is unclear. There is also skepticism as to how Chai could get away with releasing the somewhat controversial film, with questions being raised about whether there was backdoor government support. The film was released on Chinese online video sites but was later removed, likely by government censors.

But what is clear is that the film has struck a nerve, and that nerve is one of incessant worry. A friend's mother, father, aunt. Sick. A friend. Sick. Will it be me next? In China, so many are worried - about their parents, themselves, their children and even unborn children. And so many feel helpless, that, as my friend with the tumor in her breast said, trying to just be happy seems to be the only antidote to the truth.

Chai with Under the Dome just provided another antidote. Whether it will help offer a real cure remains to be seen.