Apr 122012
 

 

Balanced Arch, Arches NP RichardSaintCyr.comAir pollution ​is an unfortunate reality for all of us in China as only 1% of all cities meet the World Health Organization’s guidelines for healthy air. Beijing’s air is particularly notorious (and is worse than Shanghai or Guangzhou), but Beijing actually isn’t near the top 10 of the world’s most polluted cities. This fact shows that air pollution, far from just a China problem, is all too common in most developing countries, especially India.

Recently, the Chinese press greatly expanded their coverage of air pollution. However, there are still quite a few myths and misperceptions about air pollution, which I would like to attempt to clarify below. My ultimate goal is to provide the evidence so that we can make healthcare decisions based on facts, not fiction.

Fact or Fiction: A day of breathing Beijing air is like smoking a pack of cigarettes.

This is fiction. I often hear apocalyptic statements about air pollution, especially the idea that breathing Beijing’s air is like smoking a pack a day. This statement is a bit extreme. I did my own data analysis and found that the total amount of small air particles (PM2.5) we breathe each day is far less than one pack. In fact, it is only 1/6 of one cigarette. This amount of exposure is about the same as secondhand smoke. That finding surprised me, but I think the larger message is that any amount of smoking, even “light” smoking, is far more serious and lethal than living in the heaviest pollution in the world. From this perspective, perhaps Chinese public health would benefit more from drastically reducing smoking rates than from focusing on expensive industrial fixes to lower ambient pollution.

Fact or Fiction: Living long-term in polluted cities shortens life expectancy​.

This is fact, but with many caveats. Living in any city with high air pollution does reduce life expectancy, but every city in the world affects your health in good and bad ways. Living long -term (more than six years) in a city with air similar to Beijing gives you a 32-49% increased risk of pollution-related death than living in a city that has perfectly clean air (check out my analysis here). It’s important to consider the risk in the context of comparing this risk to other cities. For example, residents of Los Angeles have a 16% greater risk, while citizens of Paris and San Francisco have a 20% and 13% greater risk, respectively.

Fact or Fiction: Children’s lungs are more vulnerable to air pollution.

This is an unfortunate fact. The better studies, especially a few from Los Angeles school systems, have shown air pollution can cause small but permanent lung damage to a growing child’s lungs. This is actually my main concern here in China, and I hope all parents take this risk seriously and reduce their children’s risks as much as much as possible, especially ​by buying a good HEPA-certified (HEPA = high-efficiency particulate air) air purifier for their child’s bedroom. These filters, when used in small rooms with the doors closed, can filter up to 99 percent of air particles. I also feel that all school systems should have an air pollution action plan, which limits outdoor activities depending on the hourly Air Quality Index.

Fact or Fiction: Air purifiers are effective in reducing your exposure.

This is a fact, and that’s good news for those of us who feel helpless about air pollution. We tend to focus on the outdoor air quality, but don’t forget that we all spend about 90% of our lives indoors. Indoor air pollution is likely to be about 50-80% of outdoor levels. So while you may feel helpless about air pollution, you still have control over 90% of your exposure. That control mostly involves good quality indoor air purifier systems, whether stand-alone or built into your central HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning). I consider air purifiers a wise investment. These HEPA filters are rated to filter out more than 99% of all particles larger than 0.3 microns, which covers not only the most dangerous particles but also viruses, bacteria and many dangerous indoor chemicals. I’ve done some real-world testing on a few of the most popular brands and found that all models were extremely efficient in small rooms with doors closed, removing 95-99% of all particles. That means that even on “crazy bad” nights, your bedroom will be a safe oasis. Simply running a good purifier at night automatically decreases your lifetime exposure to pollution by one-third — in any city you live in.​​

To summarize, I’ve lived in Beijing for more than five years practicing Family Medicine, and while I do take air pollution seriously, I feel that my quality of life and overall health are very high here in China. Don’t panic. Acknowledge the facts. And be smart about air pollution.

(Edited by Christina Liao. First published in the American Chamber of Commerce’s China Brief, April 2012 issue.)

  16 Responses to “Breathing Clean in Beijing: Let’s Separate Fact From Fiction”

  1. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  2. […] Facts and fiction about Chinese air. “Fact or Fiction: A day of breathing Beijing air is like smoking a pack of cigarettes. This is fiction. I often hear apocalyptic statements about air pollution, especially the idea that breathing Beijing’s air is like smoking a pack a day. This statement is a bit extreme.” [My Health Beijing] […]

  3. I have a question about the US Embassy’s AQI readings. I consult them regularly when planning the day and whether to wear a mask, etc. I’m thankful they have it. A friend of mine–a mechanic and man who’s interested in anything like that–always believed when he lived here that the AQI readings were skewed high by humidity. I tried to find information about this, but have been unsuccessful so far. I haven’t thought about it for a while, but was reminded again when I checked the AQI this past Saturday morning. It was very high, and I was puzzled by that. The night before there had been very heavy, sustained rains and wind. That usually clears out the air very well. Then, it was also Saturday morning, which anyone who checks regularly will know is normally better than weekday mornings. But it was still cloudy and humid; clearly possible that it would rain again. That reminded me of my friend’s theory, and I wondered if you had any thoughts on that or had heard anything about it. During and immediately after a rain is the only time I feel comfortable opening my windows to air out the house (except those rare sunny days when the AQI is “good.”) But it seems that during and after rain the levels on the AQI are at their highest.

    • That’s a great question — I asked a meteorologist in the US this question, and he said that humidity does not make air pollution levels higher. In fact, with true fog and humid air, pollution levels are often lower as the particulates collect in the relatively huge water droplets and thus are no longer small particles under PM10.

  4. Yes I agree with that living in any city with high air
    pollution does reduce life expectancy, but every city in the world affects your
    health in good and bad ways. Living long -term (more than six years) in a city
    with air similar to Beijing gives you a 32-49% increased risk of
    pollution-related death than living in a city that has perfectly clean air. I
    think we should also support to PALS because PALS are working
    for Facts about air pollution.
     

  5. I agree that Air purifiers are effective in reducing your exposure. We have to control air pollution for sake of our children future. Lets be the part of Pure Air Lover Society, PALS and took the initiative to control air pollution so that our present and future can be safe and secure.

  6. […] is certainly not good for you, but it is no where near smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Dr. Richard Saint Cyr conducted a study that revealed the effects of breathing in Beijing air are closer to smoking 1/6 […]

  7. […] On average, one day of breathing in Beijing’s air is equivalent to smoking 1/6th of a single cigarette. Whether that sounds like a lot to you, or not much at all depends on many factors (if you’re […]

  8. Hello — I’d like to get your expert opinion if possible. My 17-year-old daughter would like to spend a month in Beijing (she’s studying Chinese) in the fall. I’m completely supportive, but I am very concerned about the pollution because she has asthma. Is there much risk to her if she spends a month there as long as she uses Singulair and Ventolin? She does not normally need medication on a daily basis, and she’s a long distance runner in good health. However, she was often hospitalized as a child for asthma attacks. Thank you for any information you can give or any resources you might have.

  9. Hello — I’d like to get your expert opinion if possible. My 17-year-old daughter would like to spend a month in Beijing (she’s studying Chinese) in the fall. I’m completely supportive, but I am very concerned about the pollution because she has asthma. Is there much risk to her if she spends a month there as long as she uses Singulair and Ventolin? She does not normally need medication on a daily basis, and she’s a long distance runner in good health. However, she was often hospitalized as a child for asthma attacks. Thank you for any information you can give or any resources you might have.

    • People with asthma certainly could be at higher risk for worse asthma in any city with air pollution. So she would need to be prepared with her inhalers and whatever daily preventive treatment she uses. Of course, if at any time she feels more short of breath she should just come to our clinic or emergency rooms, just as she would back at home.

    • People with asthma certainly could be at higher risk for worse asthma in any city with air pollution. So she would need to be prepared with her inhalers and whatever daily preventive treatment she uses. Of course, if at any time she feels more short of breath she should just come to our clinic or emergency rooms, just as she would back at home.

  10. My son will be teaching ESL in Beijing for one year. Is it better to buy an air purifier when he arrives in Beijing or bring one with him?

    • It’s generally much cheaper to buy in the USA and just bring over — usually you need a voltage converter but those are cheap.

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