More than half of MyHealth Beijing’s readers are from outside China, and I get a lot of emails from people who are planning to move to Beijing. Most people have the same concerns: is the air really that bad? Will my kids be safe? Can I find a good doctor? etc etc …
So, I’ve tried to summarize the top ten issues that I personally feel that new Beijingers should be aware of — and how they can stay healthy. Beijing (and China) long-timers my be interested as well: do any of you have a different top ten?
Tip #1: Respect The Air Pollution — But Don’t Be Controlled By It.
Yes, it’s true, as I’ve mentioned many times; Beijing’s air pollution is one of the worst in the world, with a daily average AQI of about 140, which likely is much higher than your home country. So yes, this certainly may be a factor in your health if you have bad lung disease or heart disease, especially previous heart attacks. And children with heart or lung problems such as severe asthma or cystic fibrosis may have worse symptoms here. But the take-home message is that even healthy people may still have worse problems on the really bad days.
I think the #1 step is to acknowledge and to respect this issue — but you should absolutely plunge yourself into the wonders of Beijing without fear! “Acknowledge” means that you personally read the actual data and published articles detailing the risks of air pollution; I’ve sourced many of these papers in the links below. “Respect” means that you admit that even as a healthy 20-year old student here for only 3 months, if the air is pea-soup and the Beijing US Embassy’s Air Quality Index is over 200, then maybe you should wear a mask that day on your bike commute; or if the AQI is really high at >300, then you should reconsider your children’s outing in Chaoyang Park that day and focus on indoor fun.
But I also think it’s important to keep some perspective and to not get too caught up in worrying about pollution. Just be aware of the issues and take proper precautions, and you and your family can still have a wonderful and healthy time here in Beijing.
You can read a lot more about air pollution, including the major published reports, at my new Pollution section which contains these previous posts:
- Air Pollution: How Bad Is It, Really?
- My Air Quality Journal: 太可怕！
- Air Pollution in China: New Slideshow
- BeijingAir Pollution Data: Now an iPhone App
- Let’s Review: Outdoor Air Pollutants and Patient Health
- How Good are N95 Masks For Pollution?
Tip #2: Take Control of Indoor Air.
We expats spend so much energy worrying about outdoor air that we forget that 90% of our time is spent indoors. And air quality indoors can often be just as bad or worse. Fortunately, we have a lot more control over our homes and offices than we do our outside world. So, if you protect the 90% of your Beijing time with well-made air purifiers, special air-scrubbing plants and proper ventilation, as well as knowing about when to open or close your windows, then you can literally breathe better and relax about your years here in Beijing.
Once you’ve protected your home and office, then you should check in with your child’s school and ask them about their indoor air safety methods. (Also make sure they have an outdoor air safety program in place.) Here is some more information on indoor air:
- Air Pollution: What About Indoor Air?
- Indoor Plants: Natural Air Purifiers
- Schools & Air Quality: Here’s A Sample Action Plan
- Plants Can Improve Indoor Air
- Air Quality: Games For Kids
- Pollution: Close Your Windows at Night
Beijing expats are really lucky that there are a handful of excellent clinics that can easily take care of almost all medical needs. A few are expat-oriented, with a staff of expat doctors, and our pharmacy medicines are mostly similar to what you had in your home country. (My clinic, at Beijing United Hospital, is the flagship hospital of China’s largest and oldest foreign-owned network.) Beijing also has quite a few of the top-notch Chinese hospitals, many with VIP wards, who can take care of most of the complicated cases we may see in Beijing. It’s relatively rare that we would need to fly someone to nearby countries for treatments.
All newcomers, especially those of you with more complicated medical histories, should bring a copy of your records (including important X-rays, on a CD or originals), a well as a 3-month supply of medicines, just in case your new clinic pharmacy here needs some time to order your medicines. Many vitamins and supplements may be find to hard here, so you should probably bring as much as you can of those and stock up again when you make your trips home. I always do a Costco run back in the U.S. and get a year’s supply of omega-3 fish oil and similar supplements.
Parents should be reassured that the expat clinics usually have most of the same childhood vaccines, so you can continue to be up-to-date while living here. Don’t forget to bring copies of your family’s vaccines, including your own. We usually aren’t too comfortable with recommending that you receive vaccines from local clinics, as their safety record has not been optimal.
You can find an updated list of all Beijing clinics on many websites, including CityWeekend Beijing magazine.
Tip #4: Buy Organic Food — Or GreenFood Label.
Here in Beijing, I do feel that food safety is a major concern, so when I say “buy organic”, I’m saying that organic food in general has (in theory) much more government oversight than a standard local farm, and thus organic farms have the best chance of being the most free of toxic levels of pesticides and chemicals.
As far as where to buy your organics, I personally feel much more comfortable buying foods from the most reliable stores with the best food supply chains. China still doesn’t have a solid chain of refrigerated trucks and trains to take foods from farm to store, so it’s best to stick with the big stores who have more money and investment for their own supply chain. That would include the big stores like Walmart and Carrefour; the local supermarket brand Jingkelong also is reportedly developing a good supply chain and distribution. All of these big supermarkets have growing sections of organics at increasingly better prices. I personally prefer the big Walmart on east third ring and Wanda Plaza.
There are also a number of organic farms in the suburbs and Shunyi which offer special deliveries, as well as special memberships and occasional visits to visit their farms, which can be very rewarding and fun for families. You can find the lists at my post discussing an Interactive Beijing Guide to organics.
Many expats shop at the expat-focused chains of April Gourmet and Jenny Lou’s. Both carry an impressive collection of foods and homewares, and I frequently go to there as well. But I’ve never seen much of an organized or affordable collection of fresh organics, and I rarely use them for my produce or meat buying.
Beijing has a lot of smaller, local food markets and stands, and you’re certainly welcome to try them — but you have less guarantee of where it came from, how it was grown, and how it’s been transported and stored. Many expats living in Chaoyang swear by the Sanyuanli market, near east third ring bridge. I’ve started to shop there and find the produce quality very high, although I would never buy meat from them or similar markets, as the meat is always sitting on slabs all day, unrefrigerated and uncovered, and thus is a guaranteed breeding ground for bacterial infections and food poisoning. This is especially worse in the summer months as these markets are almost never air-conditioned.
Those of you more on a budget can also look for the “GreenFood” labeled produce (look for the image to the right). Literally translated as “lu se” (Chinese for “green”), these government-certified foods are made with less pesticides and chemicals than regular produce. So, it’s not as good as organic but it’s better than nothing, and the prices are a bit cheaper than organic.
Organic labeling can also be confusing in China; I have more information on organics and food safety at these posts:
- Organics Quiz: Do You Know Your Labels?
- Organics: Cool Interactive Beijing Map & Guide
- Organic Suppliers In Beijing
- Are Organics More Nutritious? Maybe Not.
- Food Safety — Very Cool Bilingual Newsletters
- Fruits and Veggies: Are Supermarkets Safe?
- Organics: I Love … Walmart?
- In The News: Lohao City & Organic Farms
Beijing’s streets are notoriously dangerous, with the ever-increasing cars sharing roadways with pedestrians, pedal bikes as well as the explosion of electric bikes. I do think we need to be extra cautious on the roadways here, but I think everyone should get a pedal bike and use it as much as possible. Firstly, biking continues to be the most convenient transport around many parts of Beijing and often may be faster than a car. Plus, the exercise value is crucial, and biking in Beijing’s pollution is still healthier than not exercising at all. But my #1 love of biking is the deep connection I feel to real Beijing; there’s simply nothing like biking through the hutongs, especially at night. It’s one of those unique Beijing moments you will really miss once you leave here.
As for helmets, I almost never see them worn, but it’s still a lifesaver and your children should definitely wear them as much as possible.
As for safety, I actually feel a lot safer riding my bike here than I ever did in San Francisco or Boston, as here in Beijing we are mostly protected with dedicated bike lanes on all major and most minor streets. Plus, all cars and taxis expect bikes everywhere and are always subconsciously on the lookout; on a San Fran street or a Sonoma country road, people aren’t used to bikes and are much more prone to sideswiping you or opening their door in your path.
So don’t be afraid, and get out there with the rest of Beijing laobaixing and bike around!
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