Let’s be honest here — talking about air pollution can be really dry and technical. Plus, I can say that the AQI is “dangerously high” today and that you should take care, but it’s still all so abstract, isn’t it? I mean, where’s the actual proof of harm? It’s a fair question, and for me personally, the graph below is the most arresting and immediate visual spark to show people that yes, indeed, those high-AQI days can really hurt your health. So, here’s the graph:
The graph above shows information from the London smog of 1952, probably the most famous and well documented air pollution disaster. The graph plots the “smoke” pollution levels (big particles of dust) along with sulfur levels and the daily death rate. On those terrible winter days of coal-induced smog, the AQI was likely in the low thousands (way above our recent crazy-bad >500 AQI) — but it’s the overlapping death rate that really strikes me. The dramatic pollution spikes are alongside an equally immediate and dramatic rise in the death rate ; also, both improve at the same pace. It’s estimated that at least 4,000 persons died from this pollution disaster, and this event was a strong wake-up call for the UK and led to major clean air laws. (Most deaths were from long-standing heart and lung disease.)
I think this graph is a great visual reminder for Beijingers who get a bit blasé or burned out from all the pollution hype (and who isn’t?). Our AQI spikes weren’t as high as that 1952 disaster, but certainly we have many days in emergency/hazardous ranges over 300 AQI — and one would expect similar bumps in mortality during those days. And of course that doesn’t include the non-death incidences of heart attacks, angina, asthma exacerbations, bronchitis, pneumonias, etc.
My ultimate goal in all of this info-sharing is to prevent unnecessary deaths from heart attacks and other diseases due to pollution spikes; I’m trying to target high-risk people — like a theoretical Beijing businessman in his late 50’s, who already survived one heart attack and is very sporadic in taking his blood pressure and cholesterol pills. I hope that people like him can take a look at the scary graph above and then think twice about a golf game when the AQI is 250.