Yes, Short-Term Pollution Can Hurt — Here’s Graphic Proof

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:

Great London Smog of 1952 Death Mortality
Great London Smog of 1952 Death Mortality

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.

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15 thoughts on “Yes, Short-Term Pollution Can Hurt — Here’s Graphic Proof”

  1. Hi,

    I think we are all very concerned about the quality of the air, but at the same time you own a car and incite us long drives in Beijing.
    Isn´t it a bit of a contradiction here?

    Honestly, I think they should pass a very restrictive law limiting cars and increasing taxes. Not just a stupid cap sales limit per year as they´ve done recently.
    If we are really concern about air, we should consider giving up the use of our own vehicle, to begin with.
    Don´t you agree?

    1. Hi Mark: I don’t think it is practical in any society to not allow people to have cars; they definitely expand people’s access to jobs, housing, hospitals, entertainment etc. Maybe only in Manhattan can you seriously not consider having a car. So, the answer is always to have cars with as little impact as possible, which always means better gas mileage/batteries/no exhaust/EuroIV-V standards etc etc.

      But I also think Beijing may need to do more here to control the clearly worsening traffic; I personally think the congestion tax will be needed, like London does. And I am personally willing to pay a bit more for having a car here. In the meantime, I bike to work everyday as usual!

    2. Hi Mark,

      As you can see, I’ve been having a lot of trouble this week with the comments software, and I ask for your understanding. I did not censor your excellent original comment, and I appreciate your patience! Even my own replies to you have been missing or copied twice…

  2. Hi Richard,

    I´m a bit surprised about your answer to Mark.

    “I don’t think it is practical in ANY society to not allow people to have cars”;

    Really? America is not the only society out there. You can live in many cities and countries in the world without a car. I´m astonished at your statement!

    “they definitely expand people’s access to jobs, housing, hospitals, entertainment etc”

    They do if you you build a society that forces you to do so. There are alternatives, and if there are not, they should be build. Have you considered visiting more often Europe, for instance, to find some inspiration and to see that there are other ways to do things?

    “Maybe only in Manhattan can you seriously not consider having a car. So, the answer is always to have cars with as little impact as possible, which always means better gas mileage/batteries/no exhaust/EuroIV-V standards etc etc.”

    Are you serious? Are you defending the right of Beijingers or anyone else in the world to own a private car when clearly, as today, is not good for their health, for the environment…

    “But I also think Beijing may need to do more here to control the clearly worsening traffic; I personally think the congestion tax will be needed, like London does. And I am personally willing to pay a bit more for having a car here. In the meantime, I bike to work everyday as usual!”

    That sounds good to me, also that you bike everyday in Beijing, let´s hope more people do that, but it is also very elitist thinking.
    We are part of a privileged minority here in Beijing, those expats with decent contracts of course have no problem paying some more money.

    I get your point but I think it is somehow limited in scope. It´s based very much on your perspective as an American.

    Maybe in the future there will be some really cool cars that don´t make noise and don´t pollute, but right now it just doesn´t make any sense and they should be banned.

    1. Hi Arthur,

      Thanks for the good comment! But I mostly stick to my initial response. As I said, it’s not really practical to “not allow” people to have cars — in terms of a ban on car sales. You can make financial disincentives like taxes, etc, and that’s fine, but the theoretical idea that people should not be allowed to have the option to buy a car just isn’t practical. The car industry is exploding in India, China and all developing countries as the new middle class gets money, and I say “good for them”. Who are we to say they can’t have the same freedom that we have? The main issue is how to control that natural/inevitable growth with environmentally sound development.

      So I totally agree with you that “You can live in many cities and countries in the world without a car.” Of course, many cities especially in Europe are well designed and you don’t “need” a car to get around. But even in Paris there are too many cars, but they’ve put forward some great ideas to help, including a city-wide public bike system which has proven very popular. Also, many cities now offer car rentals by the hour, which you can book online and pick up at a nearby lot. It’s a great option in cities and could be considered here in Beijing.

      I still disagree that “cars don’t make any sense and should be banned”. Nor is it “elitist thinking” to buy a car in Beijing; hundreds of thousands of newly middle class Beijingers are on the roads now. All my Chinese relatives have a car in Beijing, and they all have limited incomes; but they all love having a car and comment that a car really expands their quality of life.

  3. By the way, I like this debate but it’s a bit off-topic from my article about short-term air pollution. Does anyone have comments about that topic? Does the graph above impress you, surprise you — or do we just shrug it off? …

  4. I had just mentioned about car sharing — and it’s starting in Shanghai! Read on:

    Shanghai: Car-sharing will ease Shanghai’s traffic problems (January 8, 2011)
    Residents in the city will soon be able to rent cars for short periods under a new auto-rental model which is expected to reduce congestion and pollution in a city with more than 850,000 private cars.
    The car-sharing model, one of the most popular projects displayed by Germany at the Urban Best Practices Area of the Expo 2010 Shanghai, will be promoted across the city, the Shanghai Dazhong Car Leasing Company said on Friday.
    The model would be attractive to customers who only use a car occasionally, as well as to those who would sometimes like access to a vehicle of a different type from the one they use regularly.
    English Link:

  5. Dear Readers, I’m very sorry to report that I’ve had to delete more than a couple of comments on this page. These deleted comments in general were very uncivil and disrespectful. Please remember, when you write a comment, to follow my very reasonable instructions which are posted just inside the comments box, and which I repeat now: …”Thanks for your comments! All comments will be screened by me before posting. Please be respectful, and also try to include links to evidence-based articles that support your opinions.”…

  6. Here Here. Civility!

    I personally disagree with Dr. Richard on certain issues but he is a NICE MAN in person so don’t ‘Dis him over philosophical things.

    P.S. I am in agreement with him on this issue; I do not agree with “governments” taking away anyone’s rights to own land or property for instance. The air pollution is indeed mostly due to the car- but the forces KEEPING IT GASOLINE based are very nearly criminal in my opinion…do your homework, people- restricting car ownership from individuals is NOT the way to go.

    Technologies existed 20 years ago to do away with the OIL and GASOLINE burning cars. Water engines, TESLA energy, and more. We have to ask ourselves WHY these technologies have not been developed and mass-marketed? The corporations along with the few richest Oil Barons (for lack of a better term) want to uphold the status quo which is why we see little development in the alternative vehicle market on a mass scale.

    And look into the Bob Boyce mystery. from the below article: “He invented a super-efficient electrolysis method, as well as a self-looping electrical circuit capable of charging batteries” (that is, his technology has the potential to free us all from the Power Companies!!!)

    …”This inventor living in South Africa discovered a microchip implant in his shoulder when having a tumor removed from that spot” (p.s. by Liora: the cancer has metastasized- remember when the Health industry asks you to put a chip in your arm that some 10% of rats in a study about Microchips developed malignant tumors at the site).

    “So, It turns out the chip was made by VeriChip…..more freaky is that he has no idea how it got there.”

    There are big money forces at play against alternative energy sources. The answer, I think, is mass movement on the part of The People to STOP INVESTING IN CORPORATIONS AND MUTUAL FUNDS and start investing in local businesses or just keeping your money in cash or silver. Now, what was that original topic again??

    Oh yes, the chart, it’s very telling! N95 and Respro masks on the worst days! IQ Air filters for your office, home, and children’s schoolrooms!


  7. I arrive a bit late here but I also want to say one thing.

    We all know he is a nice man, I think there is no doubt about it. Who would spend time to share useful medical advice with everyone on the internet for free?

    I understand however that some readers feel disappointed or angry to see censorship going on in a blog. The irony is that is from Beijing, and the author was expected to believe in freedom of speech.
    I really don´t agree on that point. Comments should be published as they are received so we can form our own opinions.

    After all there are too many comments from the Author that seem to answer points that we cannot read.

    Thanks for the great blog, and wish in the future people here are more relaxed.

    1. Thanks for the replies. I’m actually quite surprised that readers are surprised that blogs are moderated. All the good, high-quality blogs and websites moderate their comments section before going “live”; this filters out the obvious swears and foul tempers. Locally, the top forums on the Beijinger and Beijing-Kids all have moderators. The popular Yahoo group Beijingcafe always needs their posts pre-approved before posting. All of this keeps the quality of conversation on a high level.

      And trust me, you do not want to read the posts I had to delete. Some were foul-mouthed and full of swears, both in Chinese and English. No person should have to dread opening their e-mailbox to such abuse. Their mothers would be ashamed of them if they knew. That’s the dark side of anonymity.

  8. Perhaps people can understand a bit better if they read the official ethics code from the Healthcare Blogger Code of Ethics, a worldwide organization of the top blogs of which I am a member. You can read their entire 5-point ethics code here at; below I have cut-and-pasted “Section 5: Courtesy”:

    Courtesy – Bloggers should not engage in personal attacks, nor should they allow their commenters to do so. Debate and discussion of ideas is one of the major purposes of blogging. While the ideas people hold should be criticized and even confronted, the overall purpose is a discussion of ideas, not those who hold ideas.

  9. back to the topic: Air pollution and health. Just found this in a newsletter for Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.

    Air pollution: mechanisms of neuroinflammation and CNS disease.

    Trends Neurosci. 2009 Sep;32(9):506- 16. Epub 2009 Aug 26.

    Block ML, Calderón-Garcidueñ as L.
    Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Campus, Richmond, VA 23298, USA. MBlock{at}


    Air pollution has been implicated as a chronic source of neuroinflammation and reactive oxygen species (ROS) that produce neuropathology and central nervous system (CNS) disease. Stroke incidence and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease pathology are linked to air pollution. Recent reports reveal that air pollution components reach the brain; systemic effects that impact lung and cardiovascular disease also impinge upon CNS health. While mechanisms driving air pollution-induced CNS pathology are poorly understood, new evidence suggests that microglial activation and changes in the blood-brain barrier are key components. Here we summarize recent findings detailing the mechanisms through which air pollution reaches the brain and activates the resident innate immune response to become a chronic source of pro-inflammatory factors and ROS, culminating in CNS disease.

    Full Text:

  10. I think the real issue in London and Beijing are the long term health effects. Also, high sulphur coal pollution is a different beast than the modern, automobile and truck based pollution. First off, there is a lot of real nasty stuff in brake dust (asbestos and bi-phenols), tire dust, and auto exhaust. Beijing is far more populous, and has a lot of bacteria, virus, and other organic matter in the road dust and air. This is not a jab at any nationality, it is a consequence of the rapid growth, different climate, and far higher population density.

    Secondly, consider what did cause the crisis – stagnant air/inversion layer, fog, unusual temperature pattern – so the pollution both built up and the SO2 combined with water forming H2SO4 (sulphuric acid/battery acid) That said, what most likely happened is that deaths which would have occurred over a few weeks where moved forward.

    Also, there is a correlation between virus, smog, smoking and cancer. Given that, I think that there will be a very large number of lung, urt, and esophageal cancers in folks born in the 60’s and 70’s appearing over the next decade or two.

    The potential for an acute air quality crisis is there – in fact I personally feel the acute crisis is here. That said, the only practical solution is to reduce traffic, reduce vehicle emissions (Particularly diesel) and the like. To respond to other posts, it would be possible in China to mandate no cars, or 2-3 day a week only use of personal vehicles – because those with cars are an elite group and personal vehicles are not necessary for most folks. Not likely – but possible.

    Lastly – in China, the average “middle class” citizens are now getting cars – so expect a lot more vehicles as the demand gets met and the economic growth creates more folks capable of purchasing their first vehicle. That said, I reiterate that the crisis is here, as more cars will be the straws that break the Camel’s back (or lungs – and more like the Dragon’s lungs….)

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