Beijingers are thirsty for information about air quality – especially about how could it affect their children. So let’s review the data.
There is accumulating research that air pollution causes both long-term and short-term health problems, and children are considered more at long-term risk primarily because their lungs are still developing. For girls, lungs finish developing at 18 years, while a boy’s lungs mature by their early 20s. The Academy of Pediatrics published an official position paper in 2004 that details the health risks and recommends an aggressive community approach, led by pediatricians, to ensure children’s health.
One of the most concerning research findings is from a USC Children’s Health Study, which followed thousands of kids in Los Angeles for over nine years, from Grade 4 to 12. The results showed a worsening of lung function in those children who had the most exposure to air pollution. In Los Angeles, the average annual Air Quality Index (AQI) is around 50 – the average AQI in Beijing is three times higher.
So what can be done about this? Community action plans, especially in schools, are important. As for guidelines, it’s useful to model air pollution action plans from places such as Los Angeles (the most polluted city in the US). Californian law calls an AQI over 200 (a PM10 level >350 ug/m3) a Stage 1 Episode and asks that "outdoor physical education (PE) classes, sports practices, and athletic competitions should be re-scheduled or canceled if practicable." When AQI levels reach above 300 (Stage 2), it’s recommended that "all children discontinue all outdoor activities."
Many schools in Beijing are taking action using similar criteria, and most are following the air pollution numbers from the US Embassy’s particle monitor in Chaoyang. The best way to access this feed is from www.iphone.bjair.info.The Chinese government now has a new website which also lists hourly pollution numbers from all over China, including many spots in Beijing. You can access this information at their official website (http://22.214.171.124/air/air/airtestpage.html).
It’s important to remember that we all spend about 80-90 percent of our life indoors, so it’s also good to protect your indoor air, which often has similar pollution levels as outside. I believe that indoor air purifier systems are very effective, whether it’s a stand-alone machine or built-in HVAC filters in your home vents and air conditioning units. Indoor plants also help.
And when people must go outside on bad days (which I would say includes any AQI over 200), I recommend using a good protective mask. Industrial-grade commercial masks labeled "N95" are the best. "N95" means that mask eliminates 95 percent of larger air particles; this theoretically would bring down an AQI day of 500 to a healthy 25 AQI. These masks became more available all over China after the H1N1 scare. You can usually find good masks, particularly those made by 3M, at April Gourmet or Jenny Lou’s. For kids, the Totobobo company has comfortable and less awkward-looking masks made of transparent plastic that can be cut down to fit smaller faces. They’re currently only available from their website (www.totobobo.com).