China pollution fears pushing some foreigners out of country

China pollution pushing some foreigners out 03:32

(CBS News) The Perk family has decided to move away from Beijing.

Ethan Perk, a wine importer originally from Chicago, is moving his family to Florida to escape the Beijing air. He said, "I've had 13 fantastic years, I've learned a lot about this market, had a lot of good experience -- made some good money, and I don't really want to leave -- I really don't -- but I feel like we really have to.

Perk said he was dulled to the issue of air pollution, but that changed this January with a stretch of 14 or 15 days that he said were "really bad." He recalled, "Around noontime it was as dark as night, and I think that was really the tipping point for us."

There have been 67 days this year when the pollution reached levels where Chinese state media warned people to stay indoors.

In the past, even the U.S. Embassy tweeted that pollution levels were "crazy bad."

For decades, free coal for heating was provided to Chinese living in the north. Although the handouts were discontinued after 1980, coal continues to be a primary source of energy today and the damage to health is only now being realized.

Just this week, a study reported the half-billion people living in northern China during the 1990s will live, on average, five-and-a-half years less than those in the south because they breathed dirtier air.

Another analysis, published July 10 in The Lancet, noted that breathing low levels of air pollution over a long period of time could raise the risk of lung disease and that even short-term exposure raises the risk of hospitalization or death from heart failure.

Perk said, "It's great being here, but as my wife always says, you only have one life, and you might as well enjoy it as much as you can -- and this hasn't been enjoyable."

Perk and his wife look forward to not having to wear masks while bicycling.

The family will fly to Tampa, Fla., on Sunday. Their new rental house will have a pool, but it's the blue skies they're looking forward to most.

Perk said, "China in the last few years has been a hot topic, everyone wants to come here and do business and work - positions are taking a little longer to fill now, people are a little wary to come."

There are no hard numbers to quantify how many Americans or ex-pats are leaving China because of the pollution, but, CBS News' Seth Doane said there's anecdotal evidence from headhunters who say it's getting more and more difficult to fill jobs, particularly with families with young children.

The Chinese government is trying to do something about this problem by targeting heavily polluting industries, demanding that they reduce emissions by 30 percent in the next five years.