Read more commentary by Frances Cerra Whittelsey on her blog, The Equalizer.

They’ve closed the factories, stopped construction, taken half the cars off the road, told workers to stay home and migrants to leave the city, and still Beijing’s air looks like grey soup, according to American reporters in the city to cover the Olympics. 

As the games go on, the athletes probably won’t suffer long-term health consequences from the city’s chronic air pollution, although no one really knows that for sure despite the confident statements of the Olympic organizers. 

But what about the Chinese themselves who aren’t visitors here, who live and work here when all those pollution sources are turned on? Most American media coverage isn’t touching that question, apparently because the answer is offensive to Chinese leaders promoting that country’s particularly lethal blend of communism and capitalism. Pesky environmentalists like the ones opposed to more offshore drilling in the U.S. are muzzled and imprisoned in China if they protest too much. 

So here’s the truth: China’s air pollution is the deadliest in the world, a fact left out of the World Bank Report on the economic costs of China’s air and water pollution as too embarrassing for the country’s dictators. 

The numbers are grim: Indoor and outdoor air pollution triggers diseases that kill an estimated 656,000 Chinese a year, while polluted drinking water fells another 95,600, says the World Health Organization.

When U.S. cyclists got off the airplane in Beijing wearing face masks, diplomatic alarm bells went off at their temerity. But residents frequently wear masks to try to protect themselves. And most people in the country can’t afford to drink bottled water like our Olympic athletes, so they suffer the effects of both air and water pollution. In fact, two-thirds of rural Chinese have no piped water supply, and are forced to drink what is often heavily polluted surface water.

For all those right-wingers who think cleaning up the environment is an anti-capitalist communist plot (curious idea when the worst pollution is in communist China), The World Bank Report on pollution’s economic cost might provide a reality check. The report estimates that China’s annual Gross Domestic Product is reduced by just under 6% by air and water pollution. That’s 2/3 of the annual increase in GDP reported by China over the last several years.

If media coverage of this  Olympics does actually embarrass China’s leaders into a permanent level of heightened environmental concern, then perhaps the games will have been worth it to the ordinary Chinese citizen. Being proud of your country is nice, but nothing in comparison to being able to take a deep breath without choking.