Dec 08, 2013
Today is a good day to blog about air quality in Beijing. The great city of Beijing is at the moment completely shrouded in a mysterious veil of grey mist that has been hanging in the air day and night for the last three days. Looking out the window, it could be mistaken for a snow storm settling in on a city in North America – shades of grey everywhere and the air thick with powder. Which could be considered romantic! However, this is anything but. Another reason it seems like an opportune day to blog about it is because the construction crane for the twenty-something storied office tower being built right in front of our building is being lowered today. I have been using that construction crane as a framing element for a series of pictures from my fifteenth-floor window to capture the levels of pollution to illustrate this blog post which has been brewing in my head for a few months now. If the crane is coming down today, it’s a sign to me that I need to stop taking more pictures and get down to writing about it! Besides, what better time than the holiday season to talk about air pollution?!
“So the air quality in Beijing… how bad is it really?” my friends outside China ask me from time to time. As far as expat life in Beijing goes, that is the elephant in the room. I have to talk about it. But a picture is worth a thousand words they say, so let’s start with some images.
As you can see, it is starting to inspire local ‘fashion’, ‘seasonal styling’ for designer face masks, and local humor. In essence, it’s becoming part of the daily life in Beijing! The acronym AQI used in the last picture frame stands for Air Quality Index — a term I was unaware of until I moved to Beijing but which is now simply part of my daily life. That is to say, the AQI app on my smartphone occupies the top left corner of the main display, and every morning it’s the first thing I look at because it dictates my plans for the rest of the day. The higher the AQI, the worse the air quality. Different folks set different rules for themselves and their kids, but bad days mean you stay indoors with the air purifiers on.
Beijing air quality has even been making international news, especially since the winter at the beginning of this year which has been the worst air year ever in Beijing. Colorful, creative labels got coined this year such as “Airpocalypse” and “Airmageddon“. A couple of years before the Airpocalypse though, there was “Crazy Bad”, a term used by an American embassy official in November 2010 to describe the air quality that was literally ‘off the charts’ — the reading went beyond the limits of the monitoring index which only goes up to twenty times worse than ‘good’ air. It was a Twitter gaffe that was hurriedly corrected and replaced with a much more euphemistic “Beyond Index” rating. Beijing’s air quality broke the index in 2010, and in 2013 it actually climbed to almost twice that crazy bad reading. Fact is, people are running out of words to describe what the air looks like on bad days.
In any case, you can look at the air, and see it (think about that for a moment). So instead of resorting to words, I decided to chronicle the air quality of Beijing in pictures. Over the last few months (July – December 2013), I have taken a series of pictures from my apartment window as the air quality readings went up and down. I tried to use approximately the same view, and took pictures at approximately the same time, around 11 AM. From my fifteenth floor window, I have a clear line of sight to Beijing’s central business district with its iconic buildings — The CCTV headquarters (aka “Big Shorts”), the China World Trade Center Tower III, and the Park Tower of the Beijing Yintai Center being the tallest of the lot. Watch as this beautiful sight changes, gets veiled, then dissolves into thick air with the rising air quality index readings.
Finally, here is a side by side comparison of the best and the worst of these AQI views.
Below is another set of pictures taken in our early days in Beijing (between February and April 2013), before I was fully aware of the meaning of the AQI readings, and wasn’t tracking it as carefully. But you can see the Good and the Bad air day views from the window of our previous apartment overlooking a large park in Beijing called Chaoyang Park.
Okay, so there are good days and there are bad days. But how often do the bad days happen? That seems to be the next logical question. I had heard very little about the air pollution being a possible problem before we moved to China. But when we visited twice before moving here, we were choked up in the worst of it both times. My friends who had visited Beijing many years ago though, would not believe how awful I was making it sound. This made me unsure whether we had just got unlucky or if this was a real problem. But once we moved here, it seemed that bad days were the norm rather than the exception. In our first month here, I saw possibly four Good Air days — that’s 4, out of 30! This can easily sound like an exaggeration. To keep it objective, I have captured the air quality index color coded chart for the months of September and October. The two images below show first what the color codes mean, and then, what the two months looked like.
The screen capture above indicates that there were no Good days in either month (although there were some Good ‘times’ for short periods in a day), and we had 4 Moderate days in September, and 6 in October. The rest were ‘Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups’ or worse. In November however, we were taken by surprise by one week straight with almost no Bad air. An expat friend exclaimed that ‘I swear, this is more Good days than I have seen in my entire one-year stay in Beijing!’ By now you may be starting to get the picture.
So what’s life like then, if we are living in polluted air on a typical day?
The first thing most expats do each morning is to look at the AQI index on their smartphones or look out the window for air quality. That’s just normal, like checking if it’s raining before stepping out. We have some local yardsticks. If you can see the mountains to the North of Beijing, it’s a Good day. If you can’t see more than a kilometer away, it’s a Bad day. Some ingenious people have even come up with ways to predict air quality. An expat friend of ours who is a nuclear physicist has found a correlation between wind speed and air quality. If winds of more than 20 km/hour are predicted for the next day, it usually clears up the pollution he says. I have heard that Chinese TV channels also predict air quality, much like weather, but I have not seen anything in English-language media. On an average day in Beijing, you can see some people out and about walking, riding bikes and jogging in face masks. Kids can be seen in the playground, their numbers dwindling as the AQI readings go upwards. Some parents draw the line at AQI 100, others at 150, still others at 200, and some just let the kids play outside whenever, believing that sitting indoors all day isn’t very healthy either. Getting a taxi can be difficult on a bad air day. You can see people in masks desperately trying to flag one. I was pretty paranoid in the beginning, buying industrial grade face masks for the whole family. But now we have simply adjusted our lifestyle. We just don’t step out for more than a few minutes on bad air days, and spend most of our time indoors with the air purifiers humming away. I don’t even hear the air purifiers anymore. ‘Living in a bubble’ takes on a whole other meaning for an expat to China! Because the expat community is so transient, online discussion forums of Beijing expats are always rife with postings on AQI impacts as well as people buying and selling purifiers.
Impacts on a daily basis range from a burning sensation around the nostrils, a dry itch in the throat with the sensation that the throat is coated with a layer of ‘something’, a dull throat ache, head aches, and itchy skin — actually very itchy skin with people frequently headed to the dermatologists. In the beginning most people don’t realize what is causing the outbreak of some ‘some type of rash’. Dermatologists in Beijing treat this as a routine matter and advise patients to use filtered water for bathing, strong air purifiers especially while sleeping to get the maximum benefit for a solid chunk of time, and plenty of thick moisturizers. Long term impacts from inhaling all the fine particles that actually get absorbed by our skin tissue include asthma flare ups, bronchial diseases , heart problems and lung cancer. Famously, at least locally, an 8-year old girl recently died in China from lung cancer and the cause was diagnosed as local air pollution.
What’s going on?
All that sounds so terrible and yet so little has been done to address it. The first question to ask is, what is causing this air pollution in Beijing? Public data is not available yet. But last winter, the government publicly acknowledged the existence of the problem for the first time. That is progress. In the meantime, we can make educated guesses that the air pollution is a cocktail of exhaust from coal thermal plants (most of China’s electricity comes from coal), industrial exhaust (China is after all the factory of the world), vehicle exhaust (China has a voracious appetite for cars. There are about 6 million cars in Beijing alone as per the Wall Street Journal and other sources), and other small contributions such as from cheap cooking and heating fuels. Geography plays a part as well. Beijing is surrounded by mountains — stretching from the east up to the north and left to the west going well down south — roughly in the shape of a hockey stick. This ‘hockey stick’ effectively traps any pollution drifting up from the heavily industrialized south-east. There is hope though. The Chinese government is typically prompt in action once it decides to address a problem. If the party leaders decide to move ahead with rules to curb pollution, we can expect to see immediate implementation, without any prolonged public debates on the merits of the solutions that would typically slow things down in a US-style democracy. In fact, by September 2013, within a few months of the airpocalypse, the government had announced a series of measures such as shutting down coal plants. Sympathizers sometimes remark that China is going through the same polluted phase that many European countries and even the US went through during the Industrial revolution (London ‘Fog’, anyone?). However, much of the developed world has analyzed the problem and found solutions to this problem already. Let’s hope the problem will be tackled soon, and the veil on the amazing city of Beijing will be lifted in a few decades, not generations!
What is the AQI measuring anyway? What do the numbers on the Index mean? The Air Quality is designed to report levels of pollution in the air — typically from Ground-level Ozone, Sulfur Dioxide, Carbon Monoxide, and Particle Pollution. It is the last that is commonly quoted in the context of China (in the US, the index reading reflects the highest value of any of those 4 pollutants, if they are all measured, using a formula. Not all cities measure all pollutants). In the Chinese context, the index is measuring the amount of particles in the air that are small enough (less than 10 microns in diameter). These particles are technically called ‘particulate matter’ (PM) and divided into fine particles and coarse particles. Fine particles are defined as those less than 2.5 microns in diameter and are the more insidious of the two, causing more harm by being more easily absorbed by the body but only visible under a microscope. Coarse particles are defined as those between 2.5 and 10 microns in diameter that cause visible pollution. Based on this 2.5 micron limit, the scale measuring the level of fine particles is called PM 2.5, (this is what the US EPA and the US Embassy in China base their AQI readings on) and the scale measuring coarse particles is called PM 10 (I have heard this is what China bases its AQI reading on, but I can’t be sure as their technical regulation document is in Chinese). It is not uncommon to see that the US and China sources have different readings on the Air Quality Index on any given day. And the China numbers, usually lower than the US Embassy numbers, seem more believable, because they correlate to what we can see outside our windows (a dangerous correlation to make here).
A scary thing about the scale: it is not linear but rather on an upward curve. When the reading is about 8 to 10 higher on the scale, the level of particles is actually about 20 times higher. For example, see the particle pollution levels for AQI 50 and AQI 400 in the table below.
All this is fascinating stuff, but I wish we didn’t have to know any of it! For now, I am looking forward to signing off here, marking the one-year anniversary of my blog, and getting my bags ready for my trip tomorrow to sunny California where the air is clean (PM 2.5 < 50 😉 and coal is for naughty kids on Christmas.
Interesting blog post in the New York Times by a local writer: Jokes, Lies, and Pollution in China
Jan 16, 2014 article in the Daily Mail UK: China starts televising the Sunrise on giant TV screens
China starts televising the sunrise on giant TV screens because Beijing is so clouded in smog
Categories: Expat in Beijing