“It’s terrible,” says Peter Gonzales, a father and business owner in Beijing. He’s referring to the smog that has driven his loved ones indoors, pushed them to buy expensive air purifiers, and left them obsessively checking smog level updates. “We use the US Embassy link to check the air pollution in Beijing. My wife Nadia uses different types of [beauty]masks to keep her face healthy and young, and she spends half of her salary on these kinds of products.”
Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Wang Ying agrees that those steps, which may seem excessive, are not only prudent – but absolutely necessary for every family in Beijing.
“Parents should especially be watching the PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) levels online,” says Wang. The US Embassy website has online updates detailing the minuscule smog particles spewing out from the city’s cars and factories. “These fine particles, less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, can pass the nose barrier and enter our respiratory system. They travel deeper into the lungs than bigger particles. PM2.5 carries large amounts of toxic material such as sulphates, heavy metals, and carcinogens like PHAs (polyhydroxyalkanoates).”
Once those particles are lodged in our lungs, respiratory diseases such as asthma and lung cancer, cardiovascular diseases, birth defects, and even premature death can follow. Wang says children are especially vulnerable to PM2.5 because their bodies are still developing and need special protection.
“Children are potentially at risk anytime they are outdoors,” she says, adding that any panting at playtime will sponge up more pollutants in their lungs and bloodstream. Exertion can raise anyone’s air intake from ten to 20 times the resting level. “Risks are likely to be higher for children who are active, but even sedentary children who have asthma or other underlying lung conditions are at increased risk.”
Such hazards have kept Beijing residents glued to the US Embassy’s online air quality monitor and real-time Twitter feed. The embassy’s air quality monitors factor PM2.5 into their findings and the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center has announced it will make PM2.5 readings public available on its website from the end of January 2012.
Regardless of where parents find the danger levels, Wang says they should check the index very regularly and keep their children inside on smoggy days, when the US Embassy’s Air Quality Index (AQI) reads “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” or worse.
On the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center’s website, parents can check the Air Pollution Index (API). This generalized air quality indicator factors in sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and suspended particulate (PM10) levels based on data from monitoring stations around town. Each level of pollutant is given an individual score, the final API being the highest of those three scores calculated daily. The scale for each pollutant, and in turn the final API score, is non-linear – meaning an API of 100 doesn’t equate to double the pollution of an API 50 reading, nor would it be twice as harmful.
Wang says the government plans to swap the current API system for a new index that will include more pollutant indicators such as ozone, PM2.5, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide, along with some health protection recommendations. But for now, Wang advises that anything more than “Moderately Polluted” should warrant keeping children indoors. “If you have to go out [when the pollution is at that level], put on masks that can protect you from PM2.5, such as the N95 masks,” she says. “It is better to avoid the outdoors at dawn and dusk; at that time PM2.5 reaches its peak.”
She adds that Beijing families can further protect themselves at home with air cleaners
that contain fiber or fabric filters, electronic air cleaners such as electrostatic precipitators (ESPs) and ionizers, along with humidifiers and dehumidifiers that can slightly reduce pollutants through condensation and absorption.
But Wang says some supposed “air purifiers” can actually pollute the indoors as much as any traffic jam outside. She warns parents not to be duped by ozone generators, “super-oxygen” air purifiers, and “pure air” generators – so make sure you do the research and purchase a trusted brand.
Last year, Alexei Berteig bought a Blueair device to siphon out the smog and alleviate her two young daughters’ nagging coughs.
“At the time we bought it, our children both had respiratory infections and had essentially been chronically coughing for three or four months. Our older daughter [was prescribed]antibiotics seven times last year. We were beside ourselves, and I was convinced that at least in their bedroom we needed an air purifier to keep the air clean. We got [one from]Blueair after doing some research that suggested it was one of the more effective devices,” says Berteig.
While having one helps, Berteig goes on to explain: “It feels like using duct tape on a cracked engine block in your car. It’s not an actual fix to the pollution problem, but it keeps you from having a total breakdown. The kids are healthier than last year. We’ve had far less visits to the hospital, fewer antibiotics, fewer sleepless nights, and fewer missed days of kindergarten.”
Gonzales, owner of Gorilla Fitness and father of 6-year-old Brando, uses an IQ Air filter both at home and at his gym.
He says: “The biggest pollution concern for me centered on working out – particularly doing cardio. When you’ve worked up a good sweat and your body is screaming for oxygen, you want to make sure every breath you take is as clean as possible. When it comes to your health, you should purchase the best air purifier you can afford. An air purifier in Beijing is much more of an investment than it is a purchase.”
Wang says those filters come in handy even on Beijing’s “blue sky days,” when the municipal government’s API index is under 100 and labeled at its lowest levels – and until recently did not account for the most harmful pollutant of all: PM2.5.
Parents might feel as though they’re fighting a losing battle, but Gonzales says indoor filters ensure that the pollution won’t stifle his family’s lifestyle.
“We try to take precautions, but it is what it is,” he says. “Having a filter where you excercise and at home is at least definitely better than running and doing activities outside when it’s polluted.”
US Embassy in Beijing
Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center
US-based Alen Corp. offers two air purifier models (the Paralda HEPA Air Purifier for RMB 4,980 and the A375UV Multi-Gas HEPA Air Purifier for RMB 5,980), as well as whole-house packages and filter replacements.
(5979 8115) www.alencorpchina.com
IQ Air sells a wide range of residential and commercial air filters starting from RMB 12,800. Their best-selling model is the HealthPro 250, which retails for RMB 14,980.
1) 5/F, Household Appliance Area, Youyi Shopping City, 52 Liangma Qiao Lu, Chaoyang District (158 0136 1601, firstname.lastname@example.org) www.iqair-china.com 朝阳区亮马桥路52号燕莎友谊商城5层; 2) 4/F, Europlaza, 99 Yuxiang Lu, Tianzhu, Shunyi District (6457 1922, email@example.com) www.iqair-china.com 顺义区天竺镇裕翔路99号欧陆广场4层 See Directory for more locations.
Torana Clean Air Center
Torana Clean Air Center is the official distributor of Blueair air filters in China, with prices ranging from RMB 1,888 to RMB 10,782. Torana also carries Alen air purifiers, Totobobo pollution masks, and humidifiers. Daily 10am-8.30pm. Unit L110, 1/F, Europlaza Mall, 99 Yuxiang Lu, Tianzhu, Shunyi District (8459 0785, firstname.lastname@example.org) www.toranacleanair.com 顺义区天天竺镇裕翔路99号欧陆广场L110