BEIJING, Jan. 3, 2008 -- In China these days, the pollution is so thick you can taste it.
Dec. 27 in Beijing, the pollution index soared to a staggering 421 out of 500, 500 being the worst. The next day, it did the unmentionable. The index hit 500.
Unfortunately, it was not the first time pollution had gone literally off the chart.
Beijing's foul air is caused by a variety of factors. Coal is one of the primary culprits. Seventy percent of China's energy comes from coal, by far the dirtiest energy source, along with the surging number of cars now on the streets. According to China's first White Paper on Energy released in December, the country consumed 2.46 billion tons of coal in 2006 alone.
As Beijing Olympic officials scramble to clear the air and fulfill its promise for a "Green Olympics," there remains a small group of Chinese that can't get enough of the black stuff: the poor, who by the millions use coal to heat their homes.
In 2005, Eulalia Andreasen, director of the Beijing International Committee for Chinese Orphans, discovered a wintry nightmare unfolding outside of Beijing.
A small orphanage called Daming had run out of coal to heat its facilities in the middle of winter and the facility had turned into an icebox.
"They had run out of coal and children had suffered from severe frostbite," Andreasen told ABC News.
Without heat, a 13-year-old girl had lost her feet.
"She had clubbed feet and just had her surgery [to correct them] the summer before. She was recovering and in the middle of winter, it got so cold that she was badly frostbitten. We had no choice but to amputate," Andreasen said.
Children in other orphanages were losing fingers, toes and ears because the orphanages were running on insufficient funds. Andreasen shared her discovery with Our Chinese Daughters Foundation (OCDF) in Beijing. Together, Andreasen and OCDF searched for a way to help the children fight the cold.
Coal for Kids
The freezing orphanage that Andreasen discovered was a nongovernmental institution that relied on local donations. However, the donations generated insufficient funds to provide heating and winter supplies for children in the orphanage's care.
In January 2006, Our Chinese Daughters Foundation founded Coal for Kids, a fundraising program to purchase coal and other cold weather supplies for three orphanages outside of Beijing. This year, five orphanages in Hebei and Shanxi provinces will be supported through the winter.
"We supply them with all coal and cold weather needs such as boilers, curtains, bedding, socks and mittens," said Naomi Kerwin, Director of Community Relations for OCDF.
Each orphanage requires more than 25 tons of coal to heat its facility during the winter months. Coal for Kids spends between $25,000 and $35,000 to heat the orphanages annually, and it generates all of its funds through individual donations.
On their own, the orphanages can only afford to provide rice, cabbage and corn meal to its children. Coal for Kids purchases high protein foods that are more effective for keeping children warm in the winter. The "kids have meat, have at least three times a week," Kerwin said.
A Hard Case for Coal
The efforts by Coal for Kids, although noble, have been met with environmental and health concerns. Recently, the negative effects of coal-generated energy have been making headlines domestically and internationally, directly challenging the organization's fundraising efforts.
Coal is widely acknowledged as a major air pollutant and it can be a tough case to sell to green-conscious donors.
"Some people ask why we buy coal. That is what's available, that is what their boilers will run on," Kerwin explained.
Peking University Medical School professor Pan Xiaochuan, an expert on air quality and human respiratory diseases, has been studying how the environment affects human health for more than 20 years.
"In the winter, the air quality is the worst because of the use of heating systems supported by coal burning," Pan told ABC News.
Tiny particles of pollution — created by coal, exhaust fumes and Beijing's ceaseless construction — fill the air and can cause a myriad health problems.
"When people inhale particles, tiny problems such as cough and shortness of breath may be caused. Serious diseases such as asthma or cardiovascular problems may occur too," Pan explained.
While coal presents serious environmental and human health hazards, OCDF sees the bottom line.
"The children need the heat," Kerwin said.
"Ideally, we'd like to get solar panels and get the building to be more energy efficient," Kerwin said. "But it is a challenge to just get the windows fixed in the orphanage[s]."
A Small Part of a Big Problem
The children of these orphanages are representative of a vast rural population of coal users in China.
Andreasen pointed out that despite the negative impact of using coal, for every child in need of coal-generated heat, there are millions in rural areas that also depend on coal for daily survival.
She said, "One has to reconcile the fact that a large majority of Chinese depend on coal. [They] are very, very poor and coal is the cheapest. It's going to take a long time to re-outfit houses to use other sources of heating."
Until then, Coal for Kids will continue providing the basics in order to keep these children warm for winters to come.
Zheng Meng contributed research to this story. Corrections appended January 4.