Dispelling the ‘Mist’ : Shanghai’ers fear another Airpocalypse – what, why and how to protect yourselves

Posted on January 26, 2015

Leaving a hotel lobby in the afternoon today, I asked the doormen if the forecast said more rain, and they said ‘the rain’s over, only mist now’. I stepped out and the air hung heavy and hazy, and something smelled so wrong. And I looked at the air quality numbers. Mist, indeed.

In a couple of hours, that is all everyone was talking and writing about.

WHAT? After the ‘off-the-charts’ days in Beijing a week ago, Shanghai has the dubious glory of having won in the Air Quality stakes this weekend, and it hasn’t been pretty. The numbers are startling, and the view of the famous skyline isn’t much.

Most of the season, levels of particulate pollution have been ‘Unhealthy’ and ‘Very Unhealthy’ – on the Air Now system which the US Consulate uses, that’s Level 4 and 5, 1 being best, and 6 the worst.  And today, it hit level 6, or ‘Hazardous’, as the red bands in all the Air Quality apps screamed.



WHY? Experts don’t agree on any single cause, and the most probable explanation is that the pollution now is a combination of a few factors :

- Industrial pollution from increased coal production because of higher energy demands for heating in winter. (Coal is still the major source of energy, constituting about 75% of all energy sources.)

- Urban pollution – rampant construction activity and vehicular emissions;

combined with 

- low hanging fog (a layer of moist air traps the pollution in a sort of permeable atmospheric bubble);

- lack of wind dispersing the smog.


Don’t let talks of ‘mist’ and ‘getting used to it’ fool you. Air pollution has real, documented and quantifiable health effects, both immediate and long-term. And there is no getting used to it.

While infants, children, pregnant women and senior citizens are the population segments most at risk, the most common effects of pollution are less discriminatory, and we’ve all felt some of it : difficulty breathing, harshness in throat when swallowing, elevated blood pressure, increased chances of asthma attacks, and headaches.


The poor air quality, according to a leading Chinese public health expert, is worse than SARS because nobody can escape it.  We beg to disagree. While there isn’t a lot we can do at our level about what is reflected in the Air Quality numbers, the good news is that you can protect yourselves quite effectively : here’s PureLiving’s Bad Air Drill.

  • Arm yourself with information. Monitor the air quality outside, which varies by day and time. Online, AQICN.ORG provides data for 10 parameters in Beijing and Shanghai. iPhone users have the slick ‘China Air Quality’ app by FreshIdeas which aggregates data across 120 Chinese cities, showing trends for 24 hours to a month. For Android, there is ‘China Air Quality Index’ by Bood Qian, monitoring 8 different stations, both US and Chinese. The US Consulate stations provide hourly updates.
  • Don’t go by the AQI or API : while each country has its own system (AQI, API, etc), and these indices aggregate many pollutants, both national and international standards use only micrograms/m3 or mass concentration, so only this number can be accurately referenced. The PM2.5 ‘fine’ particles pose the greatest health risks, since because of their small size (approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair), they can lodge deeply into the lungs. The magic number is 35 ug/m3 (the WHO standard is 25ug/m3, the EPA stipulates 35ug/m3. You could say that we are being more realistic.) – if the number is lower than this, the air is healthy. Here’s more on what these numbers mean
  • Stay inside as much as you can as long as levels are high (i.e., in the ‘unhealthy’ range of >150), or limit outdoor exposure to activities that don’t increase breathing rate.




  • Close your windows.  While ventilating 2-3x per day is advised, as long as levels are high, minimize this.  Advise your co-workers to do this at work as well.
  • Turn your air purifiers on high.  Best practice is to run filters at maximum speed for about one hour, then you can turn them down to a medium.  Low speed is not effective regardless of brand.  Make sure the HEPA filters have been replaced according to manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Vacuum frequently with a HEPA-filter equipped vacuum and wet wiping or mopping.  This will capture and remove settled particulates, which will increase during this time.  Vacuuming with a regular vacuum cleaner will just suck them in and then spray them out of the back.
  • Remove your shoes at the door.  Studies indicate 70% higher particulate levels in homes where outdoor shoes are worn inside.
  • If you spend most of your day in a commercial building, the most effective solution is an HVAC (Heating  Ventilation and Air Conditioning) Fresh Air Filtration System built into the existing HVAC system. Contact us for more on this.
  • When you need to go out, wear an N-99 or N-95 rated mask which filters out 95-99% of all particulates down to 0.3 microns in size. Here is a very useful performance comparison carried out by PureLiving between the various anti-pollution masks available.
  • Check with your workplace and children’s schools for their air policy. Feel free to share this information links if they don’t have an air policy
  • If you haven’t yet, get your indoor environment tested for particulate, gaseous and chemical pollutants, to ensure that you breathe easy while indoors – the EPA estimates that we spend 90% of our time indoors, and while we can’t control what’s outside, we CAN control our indoor environment.