Airmaggedon, Airpocalypse, Grey-jing – Beijing’s air pollution is a much talked about topic for anyone living and travelling here, and remains a hotly contentious and complex issue. As a megacity and one of the most populous cities in the world, Beijing’s air pollution attracts mass media, government and public attention.
But don’t panic! Here are some points of consideration to complement your own understanding.
- Air pollution is caused and compounded by both human and natural contributors. This includes: use of coal power, topography, wind conditions (weather and climate), vehicles, mining, agriculture, forest fires, and dust storms. However, most sources assess air quality by looking at PM2.5 particle levels in the atmosphere.
- While indoor air has been tested to be consistently better than outdoor air in Beijing, the effects of first and second-hand smoking is much worse and will outweigh any advantage of staying indoors.
- Contrary to popular belief, air conditioners do not bring in air from outside, and will not affect the indoor air quality.
- Beijing air pollution levels are recorded to be lower at night (see below)
- Average levels of the pollutants in Beijing have fallen by about 35 percent from 2012 figures, with nearly half the improvement in this year alone. From 2012, Beijing shut down nearly 2,000 factories in the cement, foundry and furniture-making industries, coal-fired power plants and eliminated over 2 million high-emission vehicles.
5 years ago, amidst a period of infamous air pollution levels and increasing public pressure, the Beijing 2013-2017 Clean Air Action Plan sprang into action. In January this year, the Beijing Municipal Government reported that they had met their smog reduction targets.
Air Quality Index scale as defined by the US-EPA 2016 standard, aqicn.org
Beijing’s Environmental Protection Bureau reported that the average reading for the smallest and most dangerous PM2.5 particulate matter has decreased to 58 micrograms per cubic metre, reaching a five-year goal of getting below 60. In comparison to 2013, this is a decrease of more than a third.
In accordance to the above scale, while Beijing average PM2.5 levels are not ‘Good’, it might reassuring to learn that Beijing’s average PM2.5 levels are far from being considered ‘Unhealthy’.
But what does mean for Beijing visitors? While the big numbers are looking up, each person’s day-to-day encounter with Beijing air pollution is dependent upon a few variables.
Beijing’s smog in context
Describing Beijing’s air conditions is not so black and white. As conditions vary widely day-to-day, sweeping generalisations and anecdotes can be especially inaccurate. Here are some aspects to take into consideration.
Spatial differences: Beijing covers a large amount of area and air quality across Beijing can vary greatly. Beijing is ten times larger than cities like London and Los Angeles – and at almost 7000 square miles in area, Beijing’s area is comparable to the state of Hawaii.
From one study, “exposure levels vary greatly across the whole area of Beijing… air quality in the southern part was worse than that in the northern part in Beijing. “ This can be partly be explained by Beijing’s topography where the mountainous north-west regions have reportedly better air quality compared to the south-eastern plains.
Differences can also lie in the type of pollutants in different parts of Beijing. Another Beijing study suggested that air pollutants in the Haidian district were least likely in Beijing to lead to related health issues, while pollutants in the Pinggu district were more likely. While the research is limited, having apps like ‘China Real Time Traffic Report and PM2.5 Air Quality Index’ can keep you up to date about the air quality in different areas of Beijing.
Levels of PM2.5 not only vary day-to-day, week-to-week, and season-to-season, but also throughout a single day. One study found that Beijing’s PM2.5 levels were generally highest at night and lowest from 12-6pm.
Further, it has been increasingly easier to predict air conditions a few days ahead of time, making it easier to plan out the week with websites like www.aqicn.org .
Other recommended sources include:
Left to right: Airpocalypse, 墨迹天气 (Moji Weather), AirMatters, AirVisual Air Quality Forecast
Your own health:
If you are considered healthy, you are not likely to experience any effects unless PM2.5 levels are at 151 or above. However, if you have any preexisting health conditions that may be affected by the pollution, seek medical advice before your departure.
Masks and Purifiers
Recent improvements in air quality have translated to decreasing sales of anti-smog products, with observations that numbers of facemask wearers are in decline. However, if going through a bout of bad pollution, a bad air day, or if you’re generally sensitive to air pollutants, here are some ways to protect yourself.
Air Pollution Masks:
If the air quality index is reading 150 or below, there is little need for a mask unless you are particularly sensitive to air pollution. Simple disposable N95 masks are both cheap and effective in filtering out hazardous air particles. This means they remove 95 percent of particular matter 0.3 microns in size or bigger
Such masks are produced by brands like 3M, Vogmark and Respro.
At the time of posting, 3M 9001V masks are available at Peking University’s Zhongguanyuan Global Village convenience store, and most convenience stores on campus sell various disposable and reusable air pollution masks.
One test found that the 3M 9332 mask only lost around 1% of its effectiveness after 11 days of use.  While the data is limited, it’s suggestive that such masks can be used for a week or so.
Generally for those staying long-term or particularly sensitive to the pollution. Here are a couple of options.
- Smart Air
At around 200RMB, the Smart Air Original DIY purifier is perhaps the most affordable and effective way to purify your room. Put simply, the no-frills purifier is essentially a HEPA filter strapped to a fan. According to the results of multiple experiments and tests published on the Smart Air website, its effectiveness is comparable to air purifiers almost 40 times as expensive.
From personal observation, it seems many international students at Peking University have reached an unspoken agreement to purchase the Smart Air Original DIY model in particular!
Known for their cost-effective products, Xiaomi air purifiers have a firm position in the clean-air market. The Mi Air Purifier 2 frequently tops review lists, featuring triple layered filtration, smart control options, and multiple settings including auto and night modes to operate around your schedule. It is priced at 699RMB.
On bad air days, its best to limit active outdoor activities like cycling or walking for long distances. If sensitive to air pollutants, try to remain indoors – or if you want to remain active, plan activities further away from the city.
Addressing and analysing Beijing’s air conditions remains a complex issue. But while the war is not yet over, many significant battles have been won. For most healthy study-abroad students, Beijing’s air quality is a very manageable and short-term issue.
Enjoy those blue-sky days! There is so much more to Beijing.
Author: Janet S. (UNSW Australia)