Would Your Home Pass An Environmental Test?

As my long term readers know, I’m slightly obsessed with our air pollution issues, and my therapy is to blog about it. (After these last couple days of “beyond index” pollution, I need this outlet more than ever!) I also love electronic gadgets of all types, and I’ve had a lot of geeky fun borrowing handheld PM2.5 monitors and literally running around Beijing tracking the pollution. So I was gloriously happy recently when the PureLiving China indoor environmental consulting team came to my house armed with cases of mystifyingly cool gadgets, all designed to test my home’s environment for safety.

I recently met their boss, Louie Cheng, while we both gave a talk to a packed room of ISB parents about indoor air pollution. (You can download my presentation and Louie’s presentation).  Afterwards, I decided to get my own home inspected by his company, and I got a valuable amount of feedback both onsite and from their detailed report — so much so that I have to divide this post into two. Today’s article will discuss their air testing, and here are my major points:

pureliving indoor environmental quality summary air

  • There’s a lot more to indoor pollution than PM2.5 — Yes, especially on these last few days PM2.5 easily is the most concerning pollutant. But on usual days there are many other indoor factors, especially VOCs, benzene and formaldehyde which have ill effects on lungs, but most concernedly are considered to cause cancer. And don’t forget about radon from basements and stone, as radon is actually the world’s #2 cause of lung cancer besides smoking (did you know that?). You also need to consider indoor lead levels, as lead poisoning is a globally serious issue for infants and children.
  • My home is generally safe — as you can see from their nicely color coded graph above, most of my room’s air quality was safely in the green zone. There were a couple yellows and reds, but nothing was dangerously over recommended levels.
  • My remodeling crew wasn’t a total disaster — Chinese construction crews are notorious for cutting corners to save precious mao, and many of the glues, paints, varnishes, drywall and other fixtures could be filled with harmful VOCs, formaldehyde, benzene and other chemicals. We did a bit of remodeling recently so I was relieved that none of those issues were too bad.
  • I wasn’t buying the correct Blueair filter — I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I had thought that Blueair’s regular filters were enough. But as Louie pointed out, only their charcoal-filled Smokestop filters can remove VOCs and odor. From now on, I will only use the Smokestop filters. (full disclosure, I also own an IQAir and am perfectly happy with both)
  • Always choose old furniture over new — New furniture can leak VOCs and other gases for many years, especially the more cheaply made or the particle board pieces. It’s that “new car smell”, just much longer and much more unhealthy. Louie says that many fully furnished apartments use cheap furniture which emit far more chemicals than antique furnitures.
  • My vacuum cleaner wasn’t so bad — I had assumed my vacuum cleaner’s exhaust would be spewing dust back into the air, but my testing results weren’t terrible at all. Still, we decided anyway to upgrade to a true HEPA vacuum.
  • No dust mites! — I was pleasantly surprised to find that our bedroom area had no detectable dust mite residue. This is a tip to good housecleaning, but also demonstrates that mites can’t survive well in extremely dry areas such as Beijing.
  • I definitely need my air filters — I’m still convinced I need air purifiers in China, and their testing again confirmed what I already know: a good one can filter out all PM2.5, formaldehyde, gases and other toxic matter.
  • It’s really difficult to get PM2.5 to safe levels — even on a relatively blue sky day, my indoor air’s PM2.5 was still over limits. Cranking up the air purifiers brought it down, but this is a perennial battle here in Beijing and most Chinese cities.
  • Lead can be an issue, but from a surprising source — A couple of lead levels were very slightly elevated, and the source was surprisingly not from old paint. Our lead apparently is tracked in from the soil outside our apartment, and bottoms of shoes can spread lead dust all over the house. This is another great justification for the Chinese tradition of taking off your shoes and wearing slippers indoors!
  • Open the windows — Many people are terrified of opening windows and “letting in” the pollution, but stale indoor air very often can be more dangerous than outdoor air. You should air out your house every day if possible, even if only for 20 minutes.


Pureliving environmental testing



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15 thoughts on “Would Your Home Pass An Environmental Test?”

  1. Seems like it’s more important than ever to get testing with the air pollution issues as bad as they are. Does the government (national or local) do any certification or inspections of indoor air quality ?

  2. Hi, Dr. Richard. I got to thinking….is lead not just in “soil” but suspended in air pollution too? I found interesting info….

    Some mentions in a new study about something else…that lead and cadmium etc. are constituents of air pollution http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23086577

    Amazingly, the placenta does mostly protect developing fetus.

    but, what about our kids? Should they be getting blood tests for lead levels? What’s the general recommendation for typical kids?
    What if they have learning or developmental difficulties?

    Thank you

    1. Interesting idea about lead. I believe that lead is indeed a tiny part of the air pollution, so I’m not sure if that could be leading to higher home levels. Perhaps Louie from Pureliving can respond better to that one. In general, I haven’t heard of a need to test Beijing kids for lead levels. I remember a story a year or two ago about high lead levels in a city somewhere in China, but I think it was directly related to a local factory.
      Subject: [myhealthbeijing] Re: Would Your Home Pass An Environmental Test?

    2. Interesting idea about lead. I believe that lead is indeed a tiny part of the air pollution, so I’m not sure if that could be leading to higher home levels. Perhaps Louie from Pureliving can respond better to that one. In general, I haven’t heard of a need to test Beijing kids for lead levels. I remember a story a year or two ago about high lead levels in a city somewhere in China, but I think it was directly related to a local factory.
      Subject: [myhealthbeijing] Re: Would Your Home Pass An Environmental Test?

      1. I’m no doctor, but in environmental lead audits, when we have a client who has family members with elevated BLLs, it’s very helpful to have a history of testing to be able to compare results to. Maybe the lead levels were high even before moving to China?

        Few suggestions:
        1. Test annually, especially for the most at-risk group (children <6 yrs)
        2. Have multiple children test at the same time. This helps identify source. If everyone has elevated levels, the home gets top priority for lead investigation. If different, have to look at school, work, etc.
        3. If possible, do the intravenous vs. skin "prick" blood test. This is generally regarded as more accurate.
        4. If levels are high, make sure you know what standard is being used. The most US CDC levels were just revised this year and set 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood. Prior to this, the level was 10 micrograms per dL. Note that in China, sometimes levels are reported as micrograms per liter, so the units matter.

        Good resource for blood lead levels: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/ACCLPP/blood_lead_levels.htm

    3. I have thought about getting blood tests for lead and other heavy metals, given the extensive pollution of China’s rivers and farmlands.

      A study conducted of the population of New York City in 2004 found that Chinese not born in the US had the highest blood levels of the 3 heavy metals being tested (lead, cadmium, mercury).


      “What did the study find?
      We found that exposures are not the same for everybody. Older people had the highest blood lead levels, people who smoked had the highest cadmium levels, and people who consumed fish frequently had the highest mercury levels.

      Asian New Yorkers had the highest blood concentrations of lead, cadmium and mercury compared to other racial and ethnic groups. Foreign-born Chinese New Yorkers, in particular, had higher mercury levels than the highest category of fish consumers, higher lead levels than the oldest New Yorkers, and higher cadmium levels than current smokers.”

      A government study last year found that 44% of the rice sampled in Guangzhou contained excessive levels of cadmium, most of this rice was sourced from Hunan province.

      From http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324787004578494583962413470:

      “Nearly half of 18 rice samples tested in local markets during the first three months of the year contained excessive levels of cadmium, according to the Guangzhou Food and Drug Administration. A carcinogenic metal that can wreak havoc on the body’s kidneys, cadmium has been found in heavy concentrations in soil in different Chinese regions, soil-pollution experts say.

      Cadmium is frequently found in leafy vegetables such as spinach and choi sum grown in polluted conditions. For cadmium to be evident in rice grains as well, the soil in which it was grown must have been especially highly polluted, said Jonathan Wong, a Hong Kong biology professor who has studied mainland soil pollution extensively.

      In Japan during the late 1960s, an outbreak of itai-itai disease, or “ouch, ouch” disease, was traced back to cadmium after it poisoned people and softened their bones.

      Experts say removing cadmium from the soil is a costly process that would likely require seeding certain plants for long periods to help remove toxicity. The metal doesn’t degrade on its own, and can linger in the human body for decades.”

      From http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/8839-heavy-metal-pollution-threatens-chinas-rice-industry/:

      “Although the problem surfaced in Hunan, it is a nationwide issue. Research shows that one-third of China’s rice contains high levels of lead, and one-tenth contains high levels of cadmium, according to a Feb. 28 report by Guangdong’s Time Weekly.

      Contamination Data Kept Secret
      Hunan’s heavy metal contamination problems have become serious in recent years. During last year’s meeting about soil quality, Hunan’s Ministry of Agriculture revealed that heavy metal pollution had spread from light to heavy, from isolated to regional, and from suburbia to farming areas. The entire province is polluted with cadmium, arsenic, zinc, copper, and lead, which have a direct impact on all agricultural produce.

      According to state-run media, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and the Ministry of Land and Resources conducted a nationwide investigation into soil pollution in 2006, and collected a huge database of soil samples. However, the Ministry of Environmental Protection refused to publicize the results, saying they were a “state secret.”

      A leaked ministerial document revealed that 89,000 acres of farmland in China are contaminated with excessive levels of heavy metals, affecting 12 million tons of crops annually, which translates to $3.2 billion (20 billion yuan) of economic losses every year, according to a Feb. 7 Times Weekly report.”

      1. We can do those heavy metal testings here at BJU and our other hospitals across China, and people do sometimes ask for it — but it’s certainly not routine, nor have I found any seriously high numbers in anyone on a routine basis. Just my input … but no matter what, it’s just another reason to be super careful of your food choices, and to try organic brands as much as possible…

  3. Hello, first, got to say thanks for all the great info you provide here!

    AQI here in Shanghai has lately been really bad, at least for what one expect here, since last night been above 500…

    Unlike Beijing where many houses have central heating as I gather, here in Shanghai its quite unusual and many rely on air conditioner to warm up part of their home during winter.

    How does using air conditioner affect the indoor situation when outside is really bad? I mean assuming the air conditioner have been cleaned and filter is cleaned.

    Another thing, lets say we get a air purifier to our bed room and close the door. Wont the air get somewhat stale? And should one refrain from using air con when using air purifier?

    Best regards,

    1. I’m sorry that Shanghai is so terrible this week! I would think that air conditioners quickly suck in air from the outside, yes? It depends on the model. But no matter what system you have, I’m a big believer in indoor air purifiers in important rooms, running 24/7 all year. Especially the bedroom, with the doors closed, they are extremely effective. No the air won’t get “stale” — but it will get over 90% cleaner! They are a must for a child’s bedroom, especially.

      1. Yes, for Shanghai standards it’s been really bad here. Went out this morning to buy some things for breakfast and I could smell it, maybe not the pollution we think of when talking pm2.5 but something and I even felt I could taste it in my mouth.

        Anyway. We had some guys clean the air conditioners here and we asked how they worked. The ones we have circulate the air inside, don’t suck in air from outside. So in other words, they shouldn’t cause any issues with the air purifiers and shouldn’t be a problem to use them generally when it’s bad outside either. As long as they are cleaned once in a while both inside and their filters.

        About closing the doors, yes “stale” was maybe a bad choice of words, I was thinking more about the amount of oxygen and CO2 in the available air. Not a problem?

      2. Oxygen and other gases diffuse freely, and closed bedroom doors aren’t anywhere near a perfect seal, so there’s no problem at all with low oxygen from closed doors…let’s hope the worst is over for this week! But long term, it certainly isn’t a good sign. Things most likely will get worse before they get better…

  4. Fascinating! I have two quick questions if you have a moment:

    Do you know what counter they used to measure formaldehyde, benzene etc?

    What air purifier is being used in the baby’s room? I have heard that carbon filters are extremely inefficient in removing these VOCs from the air, and am dubious about Blueair’s smokestop filter. I did however see that there was a 25% change in just 45 minutes in the babys room, so I’m curious.


    1. Sorry, I think you’ll have to email Pure Living to find out details about their gas machine. Regarding air purifier, we have an IQair 150 in the baby room. As far as I know, the Blueair smokestop does great against VOCs but they probably have their own data as well…

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