What's it like living in a country with high levels of air pollution?
A comparable analogy to air pollution is the weather. It’s not a consistent thing. A whole range of metrological factors combined with variation in the human activity that cause pollution means that the pollution fluctuates quite a lot. Some days it’s so low that it’s practically non-existent, some days it’s extremely high. In the warmer months, pollution is on average lower, in the colder months it’s on average higher. During the Spring Festival and October Festival (Chinese two-week-long public holidays), the pollution drops dramatically in the big cities as everyone leaves town to visit relatives and factories shut down. When it rains, the pollution usually drops. The majority of the time it’s somewhere in the middle.
Most of the time, you don’t notice it, and unless you have a pre-existing breathing condition (like Asthma) you probably won’t either. When the pollution is high, it becomes more and more visible as a greyish haze or fog and you might notice some unusual shortness of breath or a headache if you do outdoor exercise during times of high pollution.
Will air pollution impact my health?
The implications for your health depends largely on the length of time you stay in China as well as your own pre-existing health. For the average expat, coming to China there is very little to worry about. You could compare it to eating junk food. If you eat poorly and you’re overweight for the majority of your life, you will likely suffer some health consequences, if you’re overweight for 5 years and then start eating better then you likely won’t see any long term health consequences. Likewise, with pollution, if you were born and raised in China and lived here for the majority of your life, you might suffer some health effects in the long term, but in the time span of a few years, it’s very unlikely to impact your health.
Does all of China have an air pollution problem?
Air pollution is an issue across China, however, the severity varies depending on where in China you’re talking about. In the south of China, the air quality is on average better than it is in the north. Likewise, in the Western provinces of Xinjiang, Tibet and Yunnan air pollution is very low. This is down to a combination of metrological effects, industry distribution and differing methods of power generation and use. The map above provides a rough indication of these geographical differences.
Why doesn't China do something about air pollution levels?
The short answer is they are. The long answer is that air pollution is largely a product of China’s massive economic growth and a huge population. Hundreds of millions of people striving to live a western standard of living, combined with the fact that China produces a large percentage of the world’s consumer goods. By exporting the production of a lot these goods to China the developed world has also exported the industrial emissions inherent in their production. The Chinese Communist Party’s political legitimacy is predicated on improving economic opportunities and quality of life for its citizens. So for a long time “growth at all costs” has been the overriding policy of CCP. However, this has changed significantly in the last couple of years as the Chinese population, particularly the wealthy east coast cities, have become increasingly vocal about living with pollution. Currently, a huge government campaign is underway to enforce environmental standards and part of China’s recent economic slowdown can be attributed to this national effort to prioritize the environment better.
How can I track air pollution levels?
The air quality index (AQI) for China is probably the most reliable source. Which you can use to track pollution in cities all across and China and elsewhere in the world. They also have an app which you can use to access the AQI on your phone.
US Diplomatic Service Twitter feeds (VPN required)
If you’d like a second opinion, the US Embassy in Beijing and US consulates in major cities track the air quality using twitter feeds, which you’ll need a VPN to access since Twitter is blocked in China.
What can I do to mitigate the effects of pollution?
If air pollution is really concerning you, there are a few practical things you can do to mitigate your exposure.
1. Quit Smoking
This may sound like a no-brainer but you’d be surprised at how many people in China smoke despite the air quality. If you’re someone who has been smoking for a while, consider this one of the reasons to quit. Air pollution and smoking have very similar effects on the lungs so if you’re smoking and living in a heavily polluted city, the damage to your lungs is doubled.
2. Work Out Inside
If you’re a runner and you like watching the trees as you run down the lane, you may want to invest in a gym membership. When you’re running outside, you’re breathing more of the polluted air as you gasp for each breath during the run and recovery. Though running on a treadmill isn’t as fun as running outside, you’ll be doing your lungs a huge favor.
3. Invest in a HEPA Air Filter (High-efficiency particulate air/arrestor)
Investing in an air purifier improves the air quality in your home by filtering out pollutants like dust, smoke, and pollen. If you have allergies, then airborne particles aggravate your allergies and make them worse. If you’re sneezing and wheezing, you may be allergic to the airborne particles that you can’t see or track.
By running this silent machine, you’ll ensure that the air in your apartment, where most people spend around 12 hours a day (factoring in time spent sleeping) is at normal levels. HEPA air filters typically cost between 3000 and 9,000 RMB depending on the square footage you’d like to filter and the brand. (Note: There are a number of air filters on the market in China and most of the cheaper ones do not use HEPA filters. Since non-HEPA filters only filter out larger particles there is little point buying a non-HEPA filter, despite the fact that they will likely be cheaper.)
4. Purchase pollution masks
Most convenience stores in China carry masks rated to filter the smallest particles (Particulate Matter 2.5 micrometers AKA PM 2.5). PM 2.5 is the standard particle size that lurks in the air and can hurt your lungs. You can find them in stores and online with cute prints and cartoons printed on them.
These are relatively cheap, usually between 15 and 30 RMB for a pack of 5 and they can be used a couple of times each. They can be a little uncomfortable to wear and they’re not very fashionable. So most people only wear these when the pollution is high or when riding a bike in heavy traffic.
5. Make use of Chinese remedies
The last recommendation is more of an unusual one. Chinese people have long used their diet to combat disease and sickness. Guess with one of the largest populations in the world, something is working, eh? Eating foods like garlic, wood ear fungus （木耳）, radish, and winter melon helps to clean out the lungs.
If you’re worried about the greenhouse gasses in the air, there’s no need to fret. China’s government has been stricter on industrial factories and has made significant strides in reducing pollution. China is actually outpacing the United States in reducing greenhouse gasses and lowering emissions as of May 2017. Personally, as someone who has lived in China for some time, it has progressively gotten better and we just keep seeing more and more improvement.