Let’s switch things around a bit and go straight to my bottom line:
The most evidence-based official air pollution action plan for schools states that no outdoor activity should be held when the PM2.5 AQI is above 200, with severe restrictions from 150-200. Anyone who tries to enact school action plans with higher cutoffs of 250, 275, etc. really needs to provide strong scientific evidence why their criteria should be less stringent. Using higher cutoffs for the simple reason that this would be “too disruptive” is not a morally justifiable argument. And not having an action plan at all in Beijing, in schools nearby the US Embassy, is simply not acceptable. Local politics does not trump universal science.
I state this upfront because I wanted to get your attention to a good news/bad news document. The good news is that I’ve finally found two credible and official school air pollution action plans: one from the most polluted parts of the US in California, and another from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s website. I’ve been scouring the WHO and other places and this is the best I’ve seen anywhere. So that’s the good news: our local schools finally have a guide from credible sources for our own action plans.
The bad news is that their school activity cutoffs are likely much more strict than what most schools are now doing, and this means more limitations than before. And it soon could be even more strict, as the California scientists are discussing revisions which will lower their highest restriction from a PM2.5 AQI 200 down to 150. And that’s only for the healthy kids; for those with asthma and other diseases, the restrictions are even more strict. And since the annual average PM10 in Beijing is ~140 AQI, and the US Embassy’s PM2.5 readings are often higher, you see how disruptive such strict adherence could be.
The most important document is the image below, which comes from the PDF file you can download here. It comes from California’s San Joaquin Valley school system, based in Fresno county, which is the #2 worst area in the US for PM2.5 pollution and is thus a good model for us in Beijing. Their plan was only implemented last year, on Halloween day 2010. I’ve been conversing via email with their scientists and I am very impressed that they’ve based their findings on discussions with the Sacramento Air District, UCSF-Fresno, the medical advisory committee of the American Lung Association, California and the Fresno-Madera Medical Society. You can click on the image to get a bigger, more printable version:
I’m sure that school leaders, teachers and parents may want to read the science they based it on. David Lighthall, PhD, the Health Science Advisor for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, has graciously provided us with their top-sourced scientific evidence at the following links (his wordings from his email):
- “We sponsored a new epi study in the SJV that is now available at www.cvhpi.org. It found compelling evidence of how elevated PM2.5 in particular (even as low as 30 ug/m3 per day) resulting in an elevation of daily ER admissions for asthma with a nearly perfect linear concentration (dose) response function.”
- “The US EPA has created an incredible health policy reference document in the Integrated Science Assessment for PM, which was compiled as part of their scheduled review of the 2006 PM 2.5 and PM 10 NAAQS. It can be found at: http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/cfm/recordisplay.cfm?deid=216546#Download along with a companion Policy Assessment. In respect to your issue, I would recommend looking at the studies reviewed and their conclusions in Chapter 3, Source to Human Exposure, and Chapt. 4, Dosimetry. Also, Chapt 6, Health Effects of Short-term Exposure. (You can find even more PM2.5 info here: http://www.epa.gov/ttn/naaqs/standards/pm/s_pm_index.html“
The second official document is from the US Environmental Protection Agency, which last summer created a School Flag Program website. This provides their evidence-based recommendations on what schools should do during air pollution crises regarding PM2.5 and ozone. Their link above has multiple handouts which may be invaluable to schools for setting up their own plans, as well as for providing the background on why these action plans are necessary in communities such as ours. They also have an incredibly useful PDF file, called “Air Quality and Outdoor Activities: Recommendations for Schools” that gives exact details as to what schools should do at the different AQI levels for ozone. That’s the catch for now — it’s only for ozone and not for PM2.5, which is much more important to us here. The US Embassy’s monitor also publishes an hourly ozone AQI next to the PM2.5, but in general terms the PM2.5 is more important to monitor. I emailed the EPA and they are working on a PM2.5 chart for schools — but they specifically mentioned the above Fresno county chart as the only one they were aware of for PM2.5. Here’s a small screenshot of the ozone guide:
My Bottom Line
I think I’ve made it pretty clear, today and over the last two years of this blog, that it’s my personal opinion that Beijing schools have a moral imperative to provide a safe environment for their students, and that air pollution action plans are now essential to us lucky Beijingers because we can access hourly PM2.5 data from the US Embassy — a luxury that no one else in China currently gets.
My views are my own, and mine is not an official policy statement of my clinic or any other company, so you’re perfectly welcome to disagree with me. Having said that, I honestly see no reason now why Beijing schools couldn’t simply adopt the San Joaquin Valley plan above (first image) and follow the US Embassy’s AQI. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to debate the cutoffs, but again you’d have to have a good reason why not to follow what seems to be the world’s most well-researched recommendations. And again, there really is no excuse for not having any plan at all.
One more thing: simply keeping kids inside the gym on bad days is not a total cure — not if your school isn’t controlling their indoor air systems with proper air filters. If the kids are playing in the gym on an outdoor AQI day of 300 but the gym AQI is 250, that’s not much of a help.
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