There was a time, as China began opening to the world in the early 1980s, when the sign of success was for a family to have a bicycle and electric light. The streets of Beijing, the country's capital, teemed with cyclists. Few cars filled the wide avenues. Hazy days meant winter winds had blown desert sands into the skies over the capital.

Today, those same streets are jammed with the new sign of China's upwardly mobile middle class: automobiles. Beijing has 20 million residents, five million cars, and a huge pollution problem. And the thick soup that obscures the sun is man-made.

Power plants burn coal to produce electricity. Cars pump their fumes into the air. And, in nearby Heibei province, steel mills add to the toxic soup that settles over the Chinese capital, particularly in winter.

Bad air here means inhaling an acrid soup of coal smoke, made up of sulphur, nitrogen and carbon monoxide. The tiniest particles -- the ones 2.5 micrometres in size, called PM2.5 -- are the biggest worry. They can go deep into the lungs and studies show they may even cause cancer.

On bad air days, hospitals fill with complaints of headaches, sore throats, and what is known as "the Beijing cough."

The World Health Organization warns that long-term exposure to a PM2.5 density of more than 25 is a risk. Big cities everywhere have it. In Canada, average readings are 11 in Calgary, 6.5 in Toronto, just 4 in Vancouver. In Beijing, it is 90.

During last winter's 'airpocalypse' the air quality index went above 800. More recently, in Harbin, a Chinese city with a population of 10 million, the index crossed 1,000. It was so bad traffic was stopped, while schools and the airport were shut.

Since polluted air in Chinese cities is a result of economic growth -- western consumers are just as much to blame as upwardly mobile Chinese.

"China is bearing the environmental cost for much of the world because China is the factory of the world," said Ma Jun, the country's foremost environmental activist. "We're manufacturing to meet the demands of our own people but in the meantime for the entire world as well and that definitely put a lot of extra pressure on our environment."

W5 travelled to see the heartland of China's factories -- the Yangtze River delta. Here, one can find thousands of factories that make and export almost everything -- from chemicals to car batteries, to clothes. Many of the items find their way to store shelves in Canada. Buy a cheap iron, or toaster, or a plastic bowl, and it's likely to come from here.

But those cheap consumer goods for both China and the entire world come at a cost, particularly because the existing environmental standards are not enforced. We watched factory waste gushing directly into the Qiantang River, where a toxic haze rising above the discharge burned eyes and throats. Local residents, fearful of police, privately told us of underground pipes that discharge waste unseen.

Residents complain that, despite promises from the central government, local authorities have a stake in the economic success of the factories. Environmental protection loses out to profit. Those who complain are arrested.

While visiting the Yangtze delta, reporter Janis Mackey-Frayer and her crew were closely monitored by Chinese state security.

"They're afraid you'll see the real situation," said Wu Lihong, a former salesman who fought the factories and who was jailed as a result. Samples Wu collected and showed to us, tell the story of Tai Lake -- once a national treasure -- now nearly dead; the site of an ecological disaster. In summer it glows with algae.

From poisoned lakes and rivers to polluted skies in Beijing, China is facing an environmental crisis. The country's leadership insists it will improve the air in Beijing, with fines and the threat of the death penalty for the worst offenders. But environmentalists are skeptical.

"I think to us, when I look at the pollution control in general in China, it's not just about the lack of technology or money, it's about the lack of motivation," said Ma Jun. "We have environmental laws and policies much of that copied from western countries, but enforcement remains to be weak."