Lifting the Fog on Beijing Air Pollution Crisis

Beijing airPerhaps in the face of uncertainty and with no apparent solution in sight, I occasionally come face to face with either ignorance of the China pollution problem or total environmental apathy. I have had a few Chinese friends who claimed (perhaps tongue in cheek) that since they were born here they’re immune to the effects of smog anyway. Other friends have assured me that there isn’t really problem – but you can be assured that if someone tells you the pollution is “natural” saying that “Beijing has always had desert dust” or that “Shanghai’s always had fog”, so there’s nothing to worry about, they’re just blowing smoke. Just like London’s pea-soupers of yesteryear, China’s smogs are both real and solvable, and they present a danger to us all.

Ignoring real and measurable problems with well-studied health impacts will not make them go away. Sometimes that apathy we see is born out of a feeling of helplessness, but we at PureLiving believe those who choose to live in China’s big cities can improve our environment, and that healthy clean air should be available to everybody.

So firstly, what is the pollution? Well, air pollution falls into two main categories: particulate and gaseous. Particulates are what we read about in the press these days - you may have seen “PM2.5” splashed across the front page of newspapers and websites recently (and I’ll go on to explain what that means).

Nitrogen Dioxide Concentrations Around the GlobeGetting somewhat less column inches are the gaseous pollutants, released from the burning of fuels. Examples include sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. These are all pretty bad news, with effects ranging from increased asthma symptoms (1), decreased lung function (2) and chest pain (3).

“PM” means “particular matter”, so PM2.5 and PM10 are the solids suspended in the air with the sizes of 2.5 and 10 microns or less respectively. That’s insanely small, and difficult to get your head around. A PM2.5 particle is dwarfed by a measly human hair, looking like a gnat’s dropping next to a giant hippo.

When it comes to particles, size really does matter. PM2.5 is so small it will evade your body’s defenses and get into every airway. The cilia (little hairs) on the lung wall cannot rid the body of the particles, causing clogging of the lungs, heart disease and other effects over the long term. So remember, small bad, big…hmm, not so bad.

So where does this smog come from and is any of it natural? Well while 90% of particles may come from natural sources globally (4), this doesn’t hold true in an urban setting. Industrial emissions, coal burning and motor-vehicles are the main sources of particulate pollution in Beijing (5). But Beijing has long had each of these sources belching into the local air, so why the sudden “crazy-bad” air? Well, as with everything in the environment the answer is not simple. Firstly, yes, Beijing has long been burning coal but coal consumption is rising at 9.7% last year (6) , as is car use rose 18% between 2010 and 2011. The blanket of smog suddenly shrouding must be a combination of factors including the effects of the weather. PM2.5 along with the effects of the gaseous pollution (like the sulphur oxides I mentioned) is part of the reason for premature deaths in China. An estimated 8,572 acute premature deaths occurred in four major Chinese cities in 2012 (7) and that’s is not even counting long term illness caused by the particles! According to statistics from 1998, 26% of deaths in China were caused by COPD – but let’s be clear that’s not just pollution, don’t forget cigarettes are one of China’s many smoking guns.

So is the problem really getting worse, or are we just more aware of it? Well of course it’s a bit of both, but in short, yes, it is getting most definitely worse. It’s hard to quantify how much worse since accurate measurements of air quality have only recently started to be taken but we do know rates of pollution are linked to economic activity, and that China’s economy has boomed. According to some commentators, China’s increases in pollutants such as Sulphur Dioxide have actually even outstripped the rate of economic growth (8). That may be due to inefficiency in industrial processes, lack of insulation in buildings and dirtier (more sulfurous) fuels.

The good side to all this, my friend from LanZhou jibes, the American spy satellites can’t see the city.

Seriously, is there any good news to all of this? Well, in my optimistic view, there is indeed a silver lining to this smog cloud. First of all, since the domestic media are increasingly reporting these pollution issues, the Chinese and expat public have increased awareness, that in turn will likely lead to policy changes that will change the situation for the better. The Chinese government has recently started measuring and publishing data about air pollution from over 1,000 stations nationwide. Additionally, there have been steps to reduce emissions from steel factories, replace coal fired power stations and replace old vehicles. It remains to be seen whether the reductions from these measures will make a difference or just be offset by further emissions.

And there’s a positive side to what we can do about this: riding economic dragon needn’t cost the health of ourselves and families since we can control our environment. If for example, you spend 10 hours at home every day and say 8 in the office – you can control your environment for 18 out of 24 hours of every day, that’s about 75% of my day! Great news! Air purifiers are widely available and not that expensive – so if you haven’t already, get one at home. And get on to your boss if you need them at the office. If you have any strange smells or symptoms at home this may indicate you have an indoor air quality problem – so call us, that’s what we do best.

In my case I have air purifiers in both my house and my office. Our independent tests show that the brands we carry (Blueair, Alen Air and IQ Air) are all very effective – especially against particulates.

Air quality experiment

Pic 1: Air quality outside, 118ug/m3 = AQI181 = unhealthy
Pic 2: Air quality inside without filter, 94ug/m3 = AQI167 = unhealthy
Pic 3: Inside after using the air filter for 45 mins, 23ug/m3 = AQI 69 = moderate

The activated carbon filters in the best brands of air purifiers will also adsorb some (but not all) gaseous pollutants too. That’s a proven technology that has been used for decades. If you want to know what is not adsorbed by air purifiers please contact us – home and office air testing will help there!

Finally, there’s the bit of your life that you spend outside – the last 25%, for me anyway. First of all, when pollution is bad, limiting your time outside would be wise. Set your own standard for this by looking at the EPA or WHO guidelines. As an asthmatic, the “Unhealthy for sensitive groups” puts me off going out and I certainly wouldn’t go to run my usual triathlon.

But, sometimes we just have to go out. What can we do while commuting to work, working out in the gym or sending the children to school? Well I don’t think there’s a perfect solution here, but certainly N-95 face masks do help, as would a PM2.5 filter that is available for some cars. You might even want to try asking the manager of your gym if they have bought air purifiers  - your health club should actually be healthy, right?

Ultimately, being aware of what causes the ongoing air quality problems helps because you can take positive action to make you life healthier. Ignoring or denying them is just means you’ve got your head in the clouds at the cost of your long term health. The use of filters, purifiers and by avoiding the worst of the smogs by staying indoors means a healthier lifestyle is available for all. So now, you can breath a deep sigh of relief.

- James


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