The International School of Beijing is building a “pollution dome” over part of its outdoor fields. I‘m very pleased with the general trend of international schools enacting stronger air pollution action plans, with bans on most outdoor sports when the AQI is over 200. Unfortunately, hitting that level happens quite frequently in Beijing. I have strongly encouraged schools to enact stronger action plans to mimic the most evidence-based plans from the US’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and school groups from smoggy Los Angeles. Those plans generally agree that an AQI cutoff of 200 should trigger rescheduling of outdoor sports.
However, I’m disturbed by the implications of building “pollution domes.” My first reaction was: “What the heck am I doing living in such a polluted city that schools have to think of such solutions?” My second major reaction was unease over the clear implications of wealth and privilege. How fair is it for a handful of children to be protected from “crazy bad” air pollution when thousands of local kids in public schools will never have this?
While this does disturb me, if I were choosing a school and Choice A and Choice B’s major academic criteria were equal, I would take such a school over the other. Let’s step back a minute: I would first see if their air pollution action plan was satisfactory. Since there are no governmental laws to follow, every private school has to create their own plan. Research from Los Angeles shows that children can develop permanent decreases in lung function after living in polluted areas. Naturally, LA has developed the most advanced school action plans in the US, but their air is barely a third as bad as Beijing’s! This study is far from perfect and decreased lung function may not be clinically relevant later in life, but parents should still minimize their children’s exposure to pollution.
But in the big picture of a child’s health, factors such as obesity, nutrition and healthy lifestyle, are far more important than the relative risks of air pollution, so one might argue that no exercise at all may be worse than exercise outside on a bad day. And some studies of cyclists in Europe have suggested that biking in cities is still far more beneficial to a person’s health than the risks from pollution exposure. This is why I think an obvious solution to bad air pollution days is to move outdoor activities to a safe indoor gym.
I’ve already lived in Beijing for six years and have no plans to leave any time soon. What’s more, I still feel that the benefits of living in Beijing for a child’s health and life experience outweigh the risks.
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