AQI PM 2.5 at 44 on this day
AQI PM 2.5 at 230 on this day
Say China and most people think of just a few things. The Great Wall, cheap exports, and pollution. A few years ago when I lived in Shanghai the pollution there was something that bothered me and a big reason I wanted to leave. At the time I did not have a measurement for pollution levels besides how it looked to the human eye. Though there were occasional days that were obviously smoggy, it wasn't too hazy on the average day. I did develop a little cough and had a rash at times that I’m pretty sure was due to the pollution levels. Despite this, I made almost no attempt to avoid the pollution other than watching the sky and eventually getting out of Shanghai.
Now that I am in Beijing, the pollution levels have become even more visible to me. Of course everyone warned me about the pollution levels and it was something that I was preparing for from the moment I accepted the job. Before arriving I bought a respro mask, aya got a lot of disposable masks which she uses, we installed AQI apps on our devices, and started looking into air filters for our apartment.
The Respro Sportsta mask, has been something that I have used a lot. Whenever I ride my bike and the levels are near 100 or above I wear my mask. I also use it a lot riding the staff bus to and from my job on days where pollution is high. I have found that it is not difficult to breath through this and ideally people are supposed to be able to do physical activity like running in this mask, though I haven’t done that. The filter does seem to be working. After about 72 hours of use I changed the filter and found it to be blackish on the outside. The only complaint I have about this is that to get the mask to fit properly I have to put it high on the bridge of my nose, which means that my glasses then can’t rest on my nose, but must sit on the mask. This pushes them out and gives me a strange look. I would recommend buying one of these if you are coming to China, but there are other options that some people use such as Vogmask and there is even a nasal filter that 3M makes that I have seen but haven’t used yet.
We installed the AQICN app on all our devices and I check it all the time. When I wake in the morning, usually at lunch, on the way out of work and then again at night I check to see what the aqi level is, but more importantly I look at the wind speed and direction. When the wind dies down the pollution levels go up and the longer the wind blows the cleaner the air in Beijing gets. Obviously the restrictions on cars and factories are not very good so no matter what day it is they will be pumping out huge amounts of particulate. The only real short term way to solve that is for the wind to blow. Blow that pollution out to sea! And to Japan! And Even to the USA! The levels of pollution have a color code as well to help identify different levels.
GREEN: More or less I follow that if its green, which is below 50 PM 2.5 (the smallest particles measured) then I am good to run outside. This happens a few times a week and one of the reasons I check my app so often. Looking now I can see the wind will be blowing hard all day tomorrow, so I am bringing my running clothes to work tomorrow.
YELLOW: If its yellow, which is the 50-100 reading I won’t worry much about being outside, but won’t run unless its on the lower end like in the 50’s or low 60’s.
ORANGE: This is the 100-150 reading. Its getting fairly high pollution levels now. I probably won’t wear a mask, unless its getting close to 150. I’m not running in this, too high. I would walk around, but I would avoid physical activity. The more sensitive westerners I know start wearing masks at this level. At this level you can start to see that the air is getting a bit hazy.
RED: This is the 150-200 range. The mask is going on, but I probably won’t avoid going out shopping or to dinner unless it starts to get near 200. Definitely not going to bike or run in this. Last year Paris got to this level and it was a sensational story, this happens regularly in Beijing and many people don’t wear masks (there is a good reason for this, the rating system they look at is different, see below).
PURPLE: This is the 200-300 rang. The mask is on, but I won’t go outside unless I have to, which is the 60-80 minutes I spend going back and forth to work. If I have plans for the evening, I postpone them. At this level the air is visibly thick. Chinese people will begin to don masks at the is level, some of the more conscientious and sensitive westerners will. If I don’t wear a mask at this level I get a bit dizzy and have a headache, but I always wear a mask mom. Don’t worry.
DARK RED: This is 300-500 or >500. At this level it is considered hazardous for anyone to breath this air for any amount of time. Almost all westerners wear masks at these levels. Around 50% of Chinese will be wearing masks at these levels. Supposedly schools close if this level remains for more than 3 days in a row. This is not true.
The most interesting thing is the difference between the Chinese and the U.S. readings.
The Beijing City government on the other hand considers levels up to 115 to be “light” and up to 150 to be “moderate” for reference, the WTO considers 10 to be acceptable and anything beyond that to be a high level. Much has been made of the difference between not only the scales used, but from the actual reporting differences between the US embassy in Beijing, which regularly posts automated air quality measurements at @beijingair on Twitter, and the City municipality readings.
On 18 November 2010, the feed described the PM2.5 measurement as "crazy bad" after registering a reading in excess of 500 for the first time. This description was later changed to "beyond index". By January 2013 the pollution had worsened with official Beijing data showing an average figure over 300 and readings of up to 700 at individual recording stations while the US Embassy recorded over 755 on January 1 and 861 by January 12. On that same January 12th the Beijing municipality reading was 700.
We also use two filters in our apartment. The Philips AC 4074 and the Sharp KC 860U. We got the Philips first and it was about 500 dollars while the Sharp was about 450 dollars. Since they were both big purchases I was a bit reluctant, but they are needed on certain days. Many people have posted on how to construct your own much cheaper devices, more or less by strapping a HEPA filter onto a fan. They may be on to something, but I’m pretty happy with the ones I have. The Philips we keep in the bedroom and use it mostly when we are sleeping. It has a sleep mode to lower the noise it makes and 4 color levels which I am enamoured with. As the air gets cleaner, the color changes. It is supposed to have a 99% filter rate for PM 2.5 Its seems to do a good job, but I also think that when I have my humidifiers on its picking up those as well. I’m not sure.
The Sharp we keep in the living room as this device also has a built in humidifier. So far so good, it does seem to work pretty well and I am happy with the purchase. In both cases I lament the cost, but in home air filters are a must in Beijing. We have also bought a number of large plants, which we hope are also helping with the air along with making our home look pleasant.
The Chinese are aware of the pollution problem. The difficulty is both the balance between growth and development in the economy and the fact that government leaders are not elected. Average citizens have little power to sway government policies, but even so the government is aware that it needs to make reforms as people are even suing the government over the pollution levels.
The government has begun to change things to bring pollution levels down. Many new measures in including closing coal fire plants, promoting greener energy, mandating greater fuel efficiency, and taking millions of older vehicles off the roads. These measures must be working to some degree as pollution levels are supposed to be down 4% from 2013 to 2014 and a lot of the expats I have talked to here have said that this year has been better than in the past. By 2017 the city is scheduled to close its last coal fire plant and there are lots of infrastructure programs in the pipeline so hopefully the next few years will just be getting better. Beijing says it plans to be within WHO guideline levels by 2030. Certainly I will be long gone from China by then, in the meantime I wish they would speed up the process.