Here in Beijing we have a residential area near the airport called Shunyi, which is essentially a collection of uber-suburban villa complexes surrounded by corn fields and the ever-dwindling scattered village. You can sip your Starbucks coffee and almost convince yourself you’ve never left your American suburb — except you just paid twice as much, and there’s no decaf brew. The saving grace of this ersatz community is their collection of excellent private schools. One of these, Dulwich College Beijing, recently built an enclosed dome over a new sports field. Nearby, their competitor International School of Beijing just recently finished building two enormous domes over a huge swath of their outdoor playing fields. Last week I had the honor of giving a speech at ISB’s opening ceremony for this Fitness and Tennis Center, and I was blown away by its sheer scale and technical specs. Both of these are really just enclosed outdoor arenas, which many schools in America already have, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that these aren’t just to keep off the rain and snow: these are pollution domes, replete with massive air scrubbers to filter out the smog. Both can easily keep the AQI levels safely under 25, even in the midst of the recent mind boggling pollution spikes over 600.
It’s no secret that the air pollution levels in Beijing are high quite often, and many parents are extremely nervous about health effects on their children. In my six years working in Beijing as a family medicine doctor, I’ve also become quite concerned, especially after digging through the research. I’ve been alarmed mostly by the well publicized results from the USC Children’s Health Study. In this research, kids from 4th to 12th grade in smoggy Los Angeles were followed for over nine years. The results showed a worsening of lung function in those children from the most polluted school districts. Their follow up study was equally concerning, showing lingering changes to these same lungs even at 18 years of age, when most lung development is completed. In other words, this lung damage could be permanent. It’s important to be a bit cautious here, as their lab findings, while statistically significant, may never become clinically significant to those students. But the main worry still remains risks to their long-term health and increased mortality as adults. Given these and other studies, I think it’s not just prudent to take action, it is in fact morally obligatory for local schools to protect their students.
I’ve been pushing this issue on my blog for a few years now, and a few school principals have been miffed at me after their battles with concerned parents, who often are waving my articles in their faces. I have no qualms being such a gadfly, although I rather like to picture myself as a pied piper, luring the children to greener pastures and bluer skies.
Because of all of this increased pressure from many angles, many private schools in Beijing over the last couple years have created action plans for air pollution, setting up activity cutoffs at set points of the Air Quality Index, obsessively followed every hour via multiple websites and smartphone apps. For example, an AQI around 250 would probably cause all outdoor sports and recess to be cancelled that day. While that AQI number may seem extraordinarily high to many, it happens so frequently here that the ISB students almost developed cabin fever last year, having been forbidden to play outside on thirty five days. So the school decided to build two enormous domes over huge sections of their outdoor playing fields and tennis courts. Now, when Shunyi’s AQI hits those higher trigger points, schoolkids at Dulwich and ISB no longer have to stare longingly out the windows into the smog; they can play sports and have recess inside these domes.
While I’m actually quite happy that these schools have done this, I’m also disturbed by the implications of schools building “pollution domes.” When I first saw the ISB dome rising over their sports fields, my first reaction was, “what the heck am I doing living in such a polluted city that schools have to think of such solutions?” Before Beijing, I called Sonoma county my home, and air pollution was a nonexistent issue there. Every day I had the rare honor of commuting past gorgeous vineyards on my drive to my Guerneville clinic, watching hot air balloons rising majestically in the pristine morning air. The only issue with air pollution was the occasional wildfire, and fog had none of the ominous euphemisms it has here.
My second major reaction to these domes was great unease over the clear implications of wealth and privilege. How fair is it for a handful of children to be protected from “beyond index” air pollution while hundreds of thousands of local kids in public schools are still running around outside? Should we be building domes for all schools? And how far should local schools go with protection, given limited budgets? Does a school ensure their students’ long term health better via MERV-13 rated HVAC filters or a low salt, soda-free lunch menu?
While those above implications still disturb me, I must admit that if I were choosing a school for my child, and School A and School B’s major academic criteria were equal, environmental programs such as action plans and pollution domes could definitely be my deciding factors. I think this could actually be a serious promotional advantage for a school in areas similar to Beijing, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to start seeing a competition between schools as to who can offer the cleanest air and the fewest skipped days of outdoor recess.
But while it’s easy and obvious for Beijing parents to obsess about the inescapable grey days, I think many lose focus on other major health issues. In the big picture of a child’s health, factors such as obesity, nutrition and lack of exercise can be far more important than the risks of air pollution. For example, one could argue that no exercise at all may be worse than exercise outside on a bad day. And since exercise is so much more a factor in health than pollution, then isn’t lack of exercise due to cancelled outdoor recess indeed a serious concern? I think so, which is why I’m hesitant but ultimately supportive of steps such as pollution domes. Since it reportedly will take many, many more years for our local air to get significantly cleaner, perhaps these stopgap measures are indeed warranted. I wish we didn’t need these types of debates, but now that it’s out there, and “up” there, I say go for it. Let the building boom begin.
A Chinese version of this article was published in my column in the New York Times Chinese edition, available here. This is an updated version of my Beijing Kids column last year.