Anyone considering an overseas posting in Beijing will need to consider the problem of air pollution. In January, The Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report revealed that a slowing Chinese economy, rises in labor cost, and soaring air pollution are contributing to a drop in the number of expats moving to China. This has also had an adverse effect on international schools, with many reporting a decline or a lack of growth in enrollment figures.
The majority of China’s air pollution is caused by emissions from vehicle exhaust pipes and coal production. Serious health problems can result from inhaling minute substances suspended in the atmosphere called particulate matter (or PM), which have been linked to lung cancer, asthma, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, birth defects, and premature death.
Particle size is taken into consideration when tracking the air quality index (AQI), a figure used by government agencies to indicate the level of air pollution on a given day. While larger particles are generally filtered in the nose and throat, those measuring 10 micrometers or less in diameter (PM 10) can reach the deepest part of the lungs and settle in the bronchi. You’ll often hear the term “PM 2.5” in discussions of air pollution and AQI; these are the smallest particles, which measure 2.5 micrometers or less and can enter the bloodstream to cause cardiovascular problems.
Air pollutants include sulfur oxides from coal and petroleum combustion, carbon monoxide from exhaust pipes, volatile organic compounds (which are also suspected carcinogens), toxic metals such as lead and mercury, free radicals, and chlorofluorocarbons in banned products. Air pollution is of particular concern to families, as children and the elderly are at higher risk.
Though air pollution should not be taken lightly, you and your family can take measures to minimize its impact on your health. A growing number of international schools are building air-filtered sports domes and installing central air filtration systems as well as enforcing a cut-off AQI point for outdoor activities (see p10 for more information).
To keep track of daily pollution levels, check the US Embassy Twitter feed (@BeijingAir), which gives hourly readings of PM 2.5 levels from the roof of the US Embassy in Liangmaqiao. Keep in mind that these readings may not be accurate for other parts of the city, but they do provide a reliable snapshot of the air quality in central Beijing.
The Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center publishes its own air quality readings (zx.bjmemc.com.cn) from 27 different monitoring stations across the city. This official channel has made great strides in accuracy and transparency in recent years, but readings still tend to differ from the US Embassy’s.
The most convenient way to stay up-to-date on daily AQI readings is through phone apps. iPhone users can download the free China Air Quality Index app by Fresh Ideas, which provides data not only for Beijing but also for a number of other cities in China. Android users can download the Beijing Air Quality widget.
Wearing a face mask outdoors on heavily polluted days is highly recommended. Don’t skimp; run-of-the-mill surgical masks will do little to protect against PM 2.5 particles. Invest in an air purifier for at-home use. It’s important to use them correctly; many people don’t. Fortunately, there’s a range of air purifiers and face masks available in Beijing to suit every need.
Masks are divided into disposable and reusable types varying widely by materials, cost, and styles. Prominent brands include 3M, Respro, Vogmask, and Totobobo. US-based 3M makes disposable N95 masks (models 8210 and 9010) that have proven popular despite their rather surgical appearance; they can also be a bit awkward for those who wear glasses. Each mask costs RMB 10-30 depending on the model. They can be found at select supermarkets and convenience stores, as well as e-commerce websites like Amazon China, Taobao, I Just Wanna Buy, and Airbusters.
Respro masks are easily recognizable by their “Darth Vader” aesthetic, with replaceable charcoal filters and two external valves. They’re popular with cyclists, though the close-fitting design tends to result in overheating on longer rides. The Techno (RMB 349) and Sportsta (RMB 369) models are available at Natooke, a fixed-gear bike shop located in Wudaoying Hutong. The friendly staff can advise you on the best model for your needs. Two-packs of filters are also for sale at RMB 249.
Vogmask is one of the newer players in the industry. The company produces comfortable microfiber and organic cotton masks containing HEPA filters in four sizes: XS (ages 1-2), S (ages 3-7), M (ages 8-12), and L (adult). However, note that the child sizes are frequently out of stock due to high demand. There are numerous styles with patterns inspired by animals, flowers, classic arcade games, contemporary art movements, and even particle physics. Vogmasks cost RMB 200 at the time of print and can be bought at Torana Clean Air Center. The store also carries RZ Masks (RMB 198), which are similar in appearance to Respro models.
Totobobo masks are made in Singapore and consist of a lightweight, transparent material called SoftTech. They also use replaceable filters (RMB 249 per pack) and can be trimmed to fit kids aged 5 and over. There are two models available on I Just Wanna Buy: Classic (RMB 195), which covers the nose and mouth, and SuperCool (RMB 202), which covers the mouth only. However, cyclists may find that Totobobo masks can get quite hot in the summer; condensation tends to form within the cup.
Face masks protect users during outdoor activities. But what about indoors? That’s where air purifiers come in. There’s a dizzying array of indoor filtration options, with a similarly broad range of price tags to match. Many families are willing to spare no expense to invest in premium air purifiers such as HealthPro Swiss by IQAir AG, Blueair (sold at Torana), Alen Air (sold by Renaud), and RGF Air Purifiers. You can expect to pay between RMB 3,000 to 40,000 per unit depending on the size, model, and surface area you’d like to filter.
There are much cheaper models, mostly made by domestic manufacturers like Yadu that can be found at supermarkets and electronics chains like Gome, Dazhong, and Suning. However, note that foreign brands are more likely to have undergone rigorous testing for their purifiers and to have passed product safety standards.
On average, a two-bedroom apartment might need up to three air purifiers to ensure clean air. When deciding on an air purifier model, factors include brand, the surface area of your home, and extra features such as UV-C lights to kill mold and yeast. It’s critical to keep the windows closed when running an air purifier; leaving them open defeats the purpose and wastes electricity.