Dr. Richard Saint Cyr and his wife, Joanna Wang, moved from San Francisco to Beijing in 2006 and welcomed their son Alex to the family over two years ago. Dr. Saint Cyr, who practices family medicine at Beijing United Family Hospital (BJU), was a health columnist for beijingkids for many years and continues to write about health and wellness in China on his blog, My Health Beijing. We contacted him for no-nonsense advice on dealing with air pollution.
How much of a problem is air pollution in Beijing? Who should be concerned?
Air pollution in Beijing is quite high, even when the air seems to be clear. It is most concerning for people who stay here for many years, but it’s also a potential issue for those who are already sick or vulnerable, such as small children or the elderly, or people with chronic heart and lung disease.
Are kids more affected by air pollution than adults?
There is concern that air pollution can cause permanent damage to a child’s lungs, which continue to develop until around age 18. The best studies so far are from California and show that higher air pollution causes a decrease in lung function, which can last into adulthood. The good news is that studies also show that moving to a cleaner area can improve lung function. Air pollution is also considered harmful to pregnant women and unborn babies.
What is PM2.5? What is PM10?
PM2.5 simply means “particulate matter” of 2.5 microns, and PM10 is larger at 10 microns. We worry more about the PM2.5, as these particles are so small that we can breathe them in deeply and they get absorbed into our bodies via the lungs. These particles can come from many sources, especially from coal burning, emissions, construction sites, and factories.
What should families do to mitigate the effects of air pollution?
Families should focus on making their indoor air as clean as possible, and this inevitably means air purification. Everyone’s goal should be getting their indoor air PM2.5 under 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air (ug/m3), which is equivalent to an AQI under 50 – the “green zone” of healthy air, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
When should families use air purifiers?
I personally think that, in Beijing, every family should use air purifiers always, every day, all year round. It’s so rare that Beijing’s air is under AQI 50 for even a few hours, you simply need to get air purifiers, keep the windows closed, and keep the machines on 24 hours a day. They work extremely well, but only if you’ve correctly assessed how many machines you need and what speed you need to keep them on. At the very least, every child should have an air purifier in their bedroom.
What factors should you consider before buying a purifier?
Before buying, you really need to assess your needs, which means measuring the room area and volume and figuring out what’s the total flow rate you need; every room needs five circulations per hour for effective cleaning.
With this information, it’s much easier to see which machines or combination of machines can cover your needs. Don’t forget that advertised flow rates, often [expressed]as Clean Air Delivery Rate or CADR, only apply to the machine’s fastest speed, which is almost never what you’d actually use in everyday use, [most likely]due to loud noise at this setting. The quieter settings will have a lower flow rate, but you won’t see that in most ads; a simple rule of thumb is to cut the CADR in half as a more reasonable expectation of what that machine can do for you.
As you can see, buying a purifier can be very confusing, especially if you have a big house, so you may be better off hiring an environmental assessment team and getting their input.
If you’re worried about brands, don’t fall into the trap of only buying expensive imported air purifiers. Plenty of HEPA-certified local brands work just as well and cost far less than many famous models. All you need is a strong fan with a good HEPA filter. If you want to test your investment, just buy a PM2.5 particle monitor and see how well they are working.
When should families use masks?
Masks are reasonable any time you’re outside for more than a few minutes and the air is bad, especially an AQI over 200. Many do work but many do not, so it’s important to stick to masks that have government certifications like N95, N99, KN95, and FFP2 or 3. The fit is also crucial, especially for kids’ smaller faces. If you can feel air leaking around the edges, then it’s not fitting well enough. If it does fit well, then indeed it can decrease your exposure to PM2.5 by 95 percent or more. When in doubt as to brands, just stick with 3M; they’ve been proven effective for decades with government certifications across the world, they’re cheap, and are available in many places, including 7-Eleven.
Are green plants useful for addressing air pollution at home?
Green plants look nice and do absorb a bit of air pollution as well as provide oxygen. But the amounts are so tiny that it’s not a proper solution to tackling air pollution anywhere in China – at least not by itself. All HEPA-rated air purifiers perform much better than any plant.
What is China doing to address air pollution?
China is taking enormous steps to control air pollution, but the problem itself is enormous. It’s estimated to take at least 15 years before Beijing’s air approaches any meaningfully-improved levels that would be considered healthy. The goal is to get PM2.5 under 10 ug/m3, and Beijing’s air currently is around 86 ug/m3. We have a long way to go!
About Dr. Richard Saint Cyr
Originally from the US, Dr. Richard (as we know him) graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English from Columbia University before turning to the field of medicine. He has lived in Beijing since 2007 and wrote for beijingkids for many years. He and his wife have a son, Alex, who is almost 2. Find more of Dr. Richard’s writing at www.myhealthbeijing.com.
This article originally appeared in the 2015 beijingkids Home and Relocation Guide. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: Courtesy of BJU, stevenzhang1221 (Flickr)