Does Your School Have Air Pollution Warnings?

pollution2I posted a couple weeks ago how serious the air can get around here, and how young children are the most vulnerable. Since then, I received notice of a wonderful new website at This website collects the hourly Air Quality Index from the US Embassy’s particle monitor. It’s a perfect little website, and I think it’s an important new tool for schools.

Let’s First Agree On The Health Data

There is overwhelming evidence that air pollution causes both long-term and short-term damage to children’s health. That includes health effects from children playing sports on heavily polluted days. There are two essential reads for all concerned parents and school staff, both from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The first is their 2004 policy statement, Ambient Air Pollution: Health Hazards to Children. The second is a review paper in 2008 called Air Pollution Threatens the Health of Children in China. Both are available as PDF, for free. Part of their conclusions are:

In communities with poor air quality, pediatricians can play a role in educating children with asthma or other chronic respiratory tract disease and their families about the harmful effects of air pollution. Patients and families can be counseled on following the AQI to determine when local air-pollution levels pose a health concern… Pediatricians who serve as physicians for schools or for team sports should be aware of the health implications of pollution alerts to provide appropriate guidance to school and sports officials, particularly in communities with high levels of ozone.

What Can We Do Better?

I think it’s important that every school, from daycare to high school, have some type of pollution monitoring and warning system. What I would suggest is:

Step 1. Someone (school nurse?) monitor the website, or the original Twitter feed at

Step 2. That person uses the AQI chart to enact your school’s action plan. Here’s an example plan from an American school system (the document is a great primer for schools):

The following limits on activity for each type of episode are recommended:

A. Level Orange (AQI 101-150: Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups)
1. Active children and adults and people with heart or respiratory disease, such as asthma or allergies, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.
2. Healthy individuals with noticeable health effects associated with existing conditions should minimize outdoor activity.

B. Level Red (AQI 151-200: Unhealthy)
1. All children should discontinue prolonged, vigorous exercise outdoors.
2. Sensitive individuals, primarily children who are active outdoors and people with heart or respiratory disease such as asthma or allergies, should avoid outdoor activity and remain indoors in air-conditioned spaces.
3. Outdoor activities that should be avoided include, but are not limited to calisthenics, basketball, baseball, running, soccer, football, tennis, swimming and water polo.

C. Level Purple (AQI 201-250: Very Unhealthy)
1. All children should discontinue vigorous outdoor activities, regardless of duration, and they should remain indoors in air-conditioned spaces.
2. All outdoor physical education classes, sports practices and athletic competitions should be rescheduled.

Every school can decide on their own level of protocol. And FYI, you see those above numbers discussing AQI over 200 as “very unhealthy” and stopping all outdoor sports and recess? In the Chaoyang district, it is very common to have readings above 200; and a couple weeks ago we had a series of days way over 500.

The Bottom Line

I’ve attached an image below of the Beijingair feed from last night. As it says, last night was officially “Very Unhealthy”. I just checked the feed this morning and it was even worse, over 300, “Hazardous”. That means that schools near this Chaoyang station should be cancelling all outdoor recreation today. Did yours? Did your local daycare keep everyone in today? I dearly hope this post sparks a conversation among the expat community, because the growing evidence of air pollution’s health effects can no longer be ignored. And now, with this new information available online, you can take more control of your children’s health. Schools have many options in implementing a plan, but one option not on the table is to do nothing.

There are some caveats we all need to discuss as well. One major issue is that this Chaoyang monitor doesn’t necessarily reflect the readings in other parts of Beijing. There are local monitoring stations scattered all over Beijing, but unfortunately they do not publish their data in hourly time (as far as I’m aware). So, I personally feel that the Beijingair monitor is the best option we have in Beijing at this time for real-time assessment of health risks. People can take heart in a “local” example, at Hong Kong’s real-time alert system which I discuss in a previous post.


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2 thoughts on “Does Your School Have Air Pollution Warnings?”

  1. Hi Richard,

    Excellent entry and sorry I'm late on reading it — but there's nothing better than having unimpeded internet access. You've laid it out in perhaps one of the easiest to understand manners that I've so far read online. Thanks for this and I'm going to crosspost it.

    I myself am a regular contact lens wearer and had a flare-up following my trip to Beijing which I hadn't experienced at all down in Shanghai. I don't know if it was a combination of the bitter cold and/or the possible air pollutants — not even talking about PM <2.5 here — but it hit be something fierce once I touched down at Hongqiao. I'm sending you some snaps to email so you know what I mean…lucky for me, Obama was in town, so it didn't harm me that badly.

    Moving onto your other posts…

    In Prague,

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