Is the air quality in Beijing really that bad?
China in general and its capital Beijing have serious problems with air quality. Some people here use the euphemism fog when referring to the smog. But there is no denying that it often is smoggy here.
You don’t want to rely on looking out of the window to judge how good or bad it is? The American embassy publishes hourly air quality readings taken at the embassy compound in Chaoyang via a free App. The app is a bit buggy at times but the data is reliable.
Keep in mind that Beijing covers a huge area. With over 6000 square miles it is ten times bigger than London and larger than the US state of Connecticut. Therefore air conditions may not be the same in different parts of the city. Supposedly, the West of Beijing gets more wind from the mountains and has slightly better air than the Chaoyang area.
Not every day has poor air quality, although this winter has been worse than many people here remember from the last couple years.
Is there a smog forecast for Beijing?
Unfortunately not, at least not that I am aware of. Often the weather forecast will say “sunny” but the visibility is only 3 km (about 2 miles) or less.
The important thing to look for in the weather forecast is the wind. On windy days the air cleans up and the fine particles get blown somewhere else. But often, the coarser dirt and sand then is blown around instead. Between fine particles in my lungs and sand in my teeth, I take the sand. Besides, regular face masks are sufficient for sand but don’t protect against the more dangerous PM2.5 particles.
What is PM2.5? And is it dangerous?
PM stands for Particulate Matter suspended in the air. 2.5 refers to the size of the particle, 2.5 microns in width, which is about 30 times smaller than a human hair width. These very fine particles can travel deep into the respiratory tract and the lungs, which can cause short-term and longer term health effects. The New York State Department of Health has a website that explains it quite well.
To give you some dry numbers and reference: The European Commission sets PM2.5 fine particle standards at 25 micrograms per cubic meter for an annual average. The American Environmental Protection Agency EPA just tightened their standards in December 2012 to 12 micrograms per cubic meter. The WHO recommends 24-hour exposure of no higher than 25 micrograms per cubic meter. Beijing surpasses these levels almost every day considerably.
We got so used to it that we consider anything below 50 good. (Sad, isn’t it?) On the upside and to put it into perspective, your relative risk for lung cancer from the air pollution is calculated to be lower than the risk from smoking.
How can you protect yourself against air pollution?
There is no way to avoid having the fine particles in your home. I just washed windows this morning and was stunned (again, as every time I wash windows) that the inside was as dirty as the outside with very fine dark sticky dirt. And these are probably just the bigger particles that you can actually see. You don’t want to think about what that looks like in your lungs.
So how to you deal with air pollution? Getting an air purifier for your home or office is probably a good idea, especially if you have small children or are sensitive. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, e.g. walking or biking, you should consider getting a good face mask that can filter out the PM2.5 particles. Not every kind of mask does that.
To get more advice from a medical perspective, check out this great site MyHealth Beijing. There Dr. Richard Saint Cyr, a family medicine physician at Beijing United Family Hospital addresses many questions around air pollution and other health topics. Don’t worry, no dry lectures there. His writing style is engaging and fun to read (much better than mine…)