In short, YES. Should that stop you from visiting Beijing? NO. Unless you have severe respiratory problems already, you should be okay. If you do, it’s probably best to check with a medical professional.
Beijing’s air pollution situation is constantly in the global news. It’s home to 21 million people and it’s in the most populated country in the world. It also hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics – when air pollution was the major public health issue – and will host the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Is the air pollution situation bad? Yes. Surprisingly, it doesn’t rank in the World Health Organization’s Top 10 Most Polluted Cities, but the rise in global attention and average income of Beijing would make this issue extremely important. So let’s break this down:
(Note that I was a public health major in college, so this kind of stuff interests me a LOT! If it’s not for you, I understand. Scroll to the last section to find out what to do about it if you visit Beijing – or any other highly polluted city.)
What is Air Quality?
Air quality tells you how “safe” air is to breathe. It’s a measure of various pollutants in the air, usually in parts per million (ppm). Organizations report pollutants in concentrations. The Air Quality Index (AQI) measures the health concern of any particular situation. The scale is shown below, courtesy of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
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What is the Air Pollution Situation in Beijing?
It’s hard to capture a great picture of the air quality, but this is the view outside my window at two different badly-polluted times.
In short, it varies. Some days are “great”, which means that you can actually see the blue sky and sun rays. These usually happen only when there are moderate and high winds. Otherwise, the sky is hazy and it feels like walking through a cloud. Think about that time during a plane’s takeoff where you pass the cloud cover before getting up to the clear skies above the clouds – sometimes I can’t see more than 500 feet in front of me. The confusing part is that the smog typically looks like fog, so I wake up thinking that it’s going to rain every day.
To put it in context, I took the pictures above when the AQI was at a level of 236 – very unhealthy but not uncommon. Note that this was only the center of town, most removed from coal power plants and manufacturing facilities; go out a few miles and the levels go up to 350+ (extremely dangerous). I wear a specialized mask made from 3M (the model seems to be most common) that is a lot thicker than the typical masks you see in a college science lab or the hospital and has a small air filter on the side. It’s rather uncomfortable wearing them because they’re so thick that they trap a ton of heat to my mouth, trapping condensation within the first minutes I have it on, but if it’s for my health, there’s not much else I can do about it.
By comparison, the most polluted city in the US – Los Angeles – had an AQI level of 65 that day. Buenos Aires was 34, London had a range up to 84, and Tel Aviv had a maximum of 161. Even Shanghai was only 85.
*Stats are taken from http://aqicn.org/, which compiles air quality information from several US and Chinese governmental and private environmental agencies. They have links to their sources at the bottom of their pages.
Why is Beijing’s Air Quality So Bad?
As with pretty much every single big problem ever, there are many reasons. The most important pollutant in terms of actual harm to human health is PM2.5, which are the particles that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. About 20 of them can fit across the diameter of a strand of hair. This is a size tiny enough to mess with your airways and cause all kinds of respiratory problems, especially over the long term. According to the World Health Organization, an annual average of 10 µg/m3 and a maximum 24-hour average of µg/m3 is acceptable to avoid long-term damage.
The main problem is that burning fossil fuels, coal in particular, creates a lot of this pollutant. With the growth of the Chinese economy, energy is a key requirement. (In most cases, energy consumption is a very reliable measure of GDP growth, except in cases of major advances in machine efficiency.) As China grows, so does its consumption of coal. This is not to mention the number of cars that are on the roads, although highly developed systems of public transit mitigate demand for cars. But for obvious reasons, any regulation of energy production is unwelcome because of its direct effects on the economy.
There are smaller contributors as well. As some companies switch to wind power, the direction of wind and pollution movement change. Some of these changes have trapped pollution in Beijing. I also see a lot of smoking. Some days it seems as if one out of every three or four adults are smoking at a given time. I have never walked from the subway station to my apartment or office without meeting several smokers; it seems to be even more prevalent a vice in China than anywhere I’ve seen in any other country.
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How Can You Protect Youself?
If you’re really worried, consult a certified medical professional. I am not one and do not provide medical advice. If you start developing symptoms from air pollution, such as irritation in the eyes or nose and throat, stay indoors and talk to a doctor.
If you’re only staying in Beijing for a couple weeks or less and don’t live or spend a lot of time in other highly polluted cities, you don’t need to be too worried. Don’t exercise outdoors, and limit indoor exercise.
It doesn’t help your health to get poisoned by the air pollution if you exercise too much. It’s unlikely that you will be exerting yourself otherwise, as there are so many cars and people that you won’t be getting anywhere quickly in town anyway. The only place that you’d probably be breathing more heavily than normal is when you visit the Great Wall of China, which is far enough away that you won’t need to worry. If you’re worried, keep reading for my mask suggestion!
Longer- and long-term
Over the long term, you should look out for yourself. Don’t think that just because the skies look clear that there’s no air pollution, or that it’s not affecting you just because you aren’t experiencing symptoms. A tiny bit of pollution adds up when you start staying in Beijing over months and years.
The typical flimsy mask that are in lower-level research labs and hospitals are NOT enough. Those can’t keep out the tiny particulates in the air that you should be worried about. Instead, go to any store (you can get a pack of 3 for 10RMB at 7-11).
I’ve noticed that the vast majority of people buy these 3M masks that specifically filter out the harmful PM2.5. 3M is trustworthy, so you don’t have to worry about quality, but any PM2.5-blocking mask can work.
You can find the designation PM2.5 on the pack itself, regardless of your Chinese comprehension. The package comes with several masks, so you can share with your family, friends, or just keep some for later. They’re super easy to use. Just hook the elastic on either side of your ears and pinch the nose bridge. The filter on the side, if there is one, will work automatically. You want to try to get the mask to cover all the gaps between it and your skin to get maximum protection. It may be a little uncomfortable breathing on yourself, but it does protect you.
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Don’t Let Air Pollution Prevent You From Visiting Beijing
Beijing is one of the most culture-rich cities in Asia, and certainly in the world. It’s such a microcosm (but not that micro!) of the clash between tradition and innovation, health and economic development; it embodies the challenges that countries must overcome when they innovate and accommodate a growing middle class. With all the new skyscrapers and millions of inhabitants, it’s still so rich in history and China’s capital. It might not be a place you stay long-term, but don’t pollution stop you from enjoying the city.
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