My Thoughts on Beijing’s Air Pollution
Air pollution is the thing that foreigners like to talk about here in Beijing.
It’s the default small talk topic. How’s the weather? Oh, the air pollution sucks today. Do you exercise? Oh, I’m scared to go running when the air pollution is so bad outside. How are you feeling? Oh, the air pollution just makes me feel so gross.
Last year, when I had just arrived in Beijing, these were my feelings towards air pollution:
I looked out the window a few times today, and the few people I saw weren’t wearing a face mask. What?! You’re supposed to wear a mask if the AQI is over 200. Well, when I went out yesterday I could breathe fine, so I guess people think that if you aren’t having trouble breathing, then you don’t need a mask. Truth is, you can’t feel yourself breathing particulate matter but it gets into your lungs and it’s detrimental to your health if you are always breathing in polluted air.
I’m going to wear a mask no matter how dorky it looks. Health is important!
Like most foreigners who visit China, I prepared myself for the severe air pollution. I read up on what AQI (air quality index) was, researched which masks were the best, and also asked friends who lived in Beijing before if they could breathe properly in Beijing. The whole air pollution thing kind of freaked me out.
For a bit, my friends and I thought it was cool to wear a mask. We’re protecting our health, no?
I religiously wore a mask when the AQI was over 150 for the first few months that I was in Beijing. When I woke up every morning, I looked outside at the skies. Blue skies meant good air. No mask needed! White or gray skies meant I needed to check the air quality.
I still wear a mask when the AQI is hazardous (200), but it’s different now. I don’t think it’s cool to wear a mask anymore. I’ll explain what I mean.
I spent six months at Origins Technology, a startup company that creates products to improve the environment around us.
Its most well-known product—also my favourite product of theirs—is the adorable Laser Egg, a smart air quality monitor. While helping them with business development and international marketing for two co-op terms, I learned a lot about air pollution.
I was as aware as I could ever be about the air pollution problem. Yet I realized that the more time I spent in Beijing, the less I wanted to wear a mask outside.
After living in Beijing for nearly a year, my feelings for this city have grown.
I’ve come to appreciate its busyness and the kindness of people who live here.
When people think of Beijing, I don’t want them to think about the air pollution. I want them to think of all the great things that you can do, see, and eat in this city.
I remember one day when I was going to work. There was nothing really particular about that day. It was cloudy, and I had just walked to the bus stop. The air looked murkier than usual, so I checked the air quality with an app on my phone. The AQI was 190 (hazardous)! I always carry a mask in my jacket pocket, so I pulled it out and put it over my face. I hadn’t worn a mask in a long time because the air was good for a long time prior to that day. Once I put the mask on, I felt a little unusual.
Standing stiffly on the bus among a crowd of passengers, I tried to pinpoint the feeling.
I realized that I felt disgusted because I couldn’t safely breathe the air in my own city.
When I was a kid, I would joke on Thanksgiving Day that I was thankful for the air. Like, everyone has air to breathe right? I thought it was funny at the time.
It’s anything but funny now. Air pollution is silent, but deadly. A study by the University of California found that air pollution in China is killing 4,000 people every day because of heart, lung and stroke problems.
And China doesn’t even have the world’s most polluted air. India does. The damage is severe: Nearly half of Delhi’s schoolchildren have irreversible lung damage because of air pollution.
Now you know what I mean when I say I don’t think it’s cool to wear a mask: I wish our cities weren’t polluted. I wish I didn’t have to wear a mask.
Are things getting better, though?
In Beijing, the 2015 concentration of PM2.5 (really bad tiny particles that can enter your bloodstream through the lungs) was 81 micrograms per cubic metre (AQI ~ 160), 6% down from 2014 and 10% down from 2013. It’s an improvement, but remember that the World Health Organization deems 10 micrograms per cubic metre as safe.
Fun fact: My Laser Egg always reads 1 microgram per cubic metre at home in Vancouver. Can you say world’s greenest city?
However, the improvement in Beijing’s air quality doesn’t mean much when you look at the big picture. I’ll quote Greenpeace directly:
The improved air quality in the east is a clear result of China taking measures to tackle abysmal air pollution in the region. China’s Air Pollution Action plan set solid targets for PM2.5 reduction in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, leading local governments to proactively monitor and manage air pollution.
But as eastern China comes under increasingly stringent controls, polluting industries have been heading west, to areas that aren’t subject to as strict regulations.
Polluting industries have been heading west… my, oh my!
I’ve read so many news articles and studies on air pollution that sometimes it just all becomes words and numbers. Sometimes, I forget that the whole air pollution issue affects human lives the most—your life and my life!
Anyways, it’s a huge global issue that needs to be tackled (London has a problem too). I’m glad that there are governments, organizations, and companies that want to make our cities more livable. To give you an idea of how much I actually wear a mask outside… maybe once every two weeks? I don’t wear masks indoors because I have air purifiers on and Beijing’s air is usually not hazardous. It’s bad, but not hazardous.
Little me on Thanksgiving Day was right: I should be thankful for the air. In a few days, I’m going back home to Vancouver. After I unpack and collapse on my bed for a good night’s sleep, I’m going to run around Burnaby Central Park. Can’t wait!
Fun Photo: Look at this picture of beautiful Beijing with blue skies and fluffy white clouds and no photo editing. Can you see the mountains?!
Note: The opinions and thoughts expressed in this post represent my own and are not those of anyone else (including Origins Technology).