People walk on an overhead pedestrian bridge on a hazy day in Beijing, Nov. 8, 2013. China’s air pollution is now so bad, it is now more visible from space than the Great Wall. Reuters

Shaocai Yu, a geoengineering researcher from Zhejiang and North Carolina State universities, has a novel idea for cleaning up China’s polluted air. The technique involves positioning sprinklers on the roofs of tall buildings to spray water into the atmosphere to collect particulate matter, similar to how rain removes airborne dust. According to Nature World News, the idea came to Yu while he watched someone water a garden.

"I immediately thought that we can clean air pollution by spraying water into the atmosphere like watering a garden," Yu told Nature World News.

Yu’s idea for a giant sprinkler system to clean up China’s toxic haze is outlined in an article in the January 2014 issue of Environmental Chemistry Letters. Yu predicts his scheme could reduce the amount of fine particulate in the atmosphere around major cities to 35 micrograms per cubic meter, a level much safer than the 500 micrograms per cubic meter previously recorded in Beijing (that’s about 20 times more than what the World Health Organization deems acceptable).

"With careful and considered evaluation beforehand for each area in the cities, this geoengineering approach can be environmentally safe without significant side effects. It can also be deployed easily within communities and on a massive scale at low cost," Yu said in a statement. "If you can spend half an hour watering your garden, you can also spend 30 minutes watering your ambient atmosphere to keep the air clean with this technique."

Following a decades-long surge of economic and industrial development, China’s air has become so filthy, it’s literally killing hundreds of thousands of people every year. According to the country’s former Health minister, Chen Zhu, China’s air pollution was responsible for 350,000 to 500,000 deaths in 2013.

In a December 2013 paper published in Lancet, Zhu, whose term as Health minister ended last year, called China’s polluted air the “fourth biggest threat to the health of Chinese people” behind heart disease, dietary risk and smoking. According to The Telegraph, between 2002 and 2011, lunch cancer cases in Beijing nearly doubled. While smoking remains the leading cause of lung cancer, Chinese are actually smoking less, but lung cancer rates continue to rise.

China’s “airpocalypse” was, for a long time, ignored and even denied by officials in Beijing. In 2007, the government censored a claim from the World Bank that air pollution caused 350,000 to 400,000 premature deaths in China. The country’s state-run media at one point even tried to convince its audiences of the “surprising benefits” of toxic haze (including how it “unifies” China, makes people funnier and raises citizen awareness).

In recent years, Beijing has come to terms with China’s need to tackle deadly air pollution and has even taken measures to address it. In 2012, the Chinese government invested 982 billion Yuan ($162 billion USD) to fight water and air pollution, including cleaning up rivers and targeting primary sources of airborne pollutants like iron and steel plants.

“The plan aims to cut China's total coal consumption to below 65 percent of its total primary energy use by 2017, which is part of the country's efforts to accelerate adjusting its energy structure and increase clean energy supply,” media reported in September 2013.

Among the government’s goals are improving the quality of fuel oil, clearing heavy-polluting vehicles from the roads, limiting the construction of new coal-fired power plants and setting new emissions regulations for the ones already operating.