Thu, January 12, 2012
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How to protect yourself against air pollution

2012-01-12 03:07:39 GMT2012-01-12 11:07:39(Beijing Time)  City Weekend

How to protect yourself against air pollution

Crazy bad air--err, off the charts bad yesterday morning. Although laowai have long complained about Beijing’s bad air (usually between cigarette puffs), we’ve never seen the Chinese public so alarmed about the shameful state of our polluted skies … until now.

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

The government says the skies are less polluted. The rest of us are running for cover under face masks. But pollution may not have actually gotten worse. Rather, people are more aware about potential health issues and are “less willing to put up with breathing in polluted air.”

Domestic outcry reached a fever pitch with the poisonous cloud of smog that settled over Beijing late last fall. Not coincidentally, that’s when prominent Chinese bloggers started putting U.S. Embassy’s air quality readings on Weibo and let the smoggy cat out of the bag.

This matters because the Chinese readings used to ignore smaller, more dangerous PM2.5 particulates in favor of bigger, courser PM10. The readings were also a 24-hour average, which ended up softening daytime spikes that the U.S. Embassy measurements catch. But the Beijing's Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau promises to start releasing revised PM2.5 calculations by the Chinese New Year, with real-time PM2.5 info available by the end of the year.

Off the Charts

But we don't have to wait for the official numbers. The US embassy already releases real-time, accurate measures of air quality here (VPN necessary). There’s also a wonderful app for keeping track at that doesn't require a VPN. Here's what those numbers mean (beyond the safe-green scary-red dichotomy):

Health Concerns

There is truly "no safe dose of pollution," says Dr. Saint Cyr of Beijing United Hospital. He tells us that ill health effects can start from even moderate amounts of exposure, as a blue sky day in Beijing rarely falls below 50 (see chart above).

Children and developing fetuses are particularly sensitive to environmental pollutants, as are the elderly and those with chronic diseases. Also, the incidence of heart attacks will start rising during polluted weather.

But the most worrying concern for otherwise healthy adults are long-term effects like heart disease and lung cancer. The lung cancer rate “has increased by 60 percent during the past decade, even though the smoking rate during the period has not seen an apparent increase,” said the deputy director of the Beijing Health Bureau. Air pollution is considered a factor.

It’s scary stuff, but sensible prevention is the key. Dr. Saint Cyr's website is a treasure trove for those wanting more information on the health effects of air pollution. He also authors blogs discussing everything from buying air purifiers to using plants to ward off indoor pollutants.

Masking Trouble

Although a regular face mask (kouzhao) from Watson’s will block some harmful elements, your best bet is to use a N95 industrial mask. Theoretically, says Dr. Saint Cyr, these types of masks will filter 95% of particulate matter in the air. Just make sure it fits well with no gaps. Here’s an image from Greenpeace to show you how it’s done:

image courtesy of Greenpeace Asia

Also, as gross as this sounds, switch out for a new one when it gets visibly dirty. You can buy N95 face masks at BJU in their gift shop for RMB16 each, with SOS selling 3M masks for RMB45. You can also buy a box of twenty locally produced N95 masks for RMB48. Online, you can search for N95 口罩 on Taobao or, although like anything sourced on the web, authenticity is not guaranteed.

I Want to Ride my Bicycle

Although you should probably limit outdoor activities at around the 300 mark, what about those who primarily use bicycles to commute to work? After all, the harder you pedal, the deeper you breathe, sucking in all that polluted air.

Dr. Saint Cyr maintains that for regular bicyclists, the net gain to cardio health is worth braving the bad air--if you are serious about wearing a mask. A recent study in the British Medical Journal confirms this by noting the benefits of daily exercise far exceeded the dangers posed by air pollution (3-14 months gained vs. 0.8-40 days lost). Although this study was conducted in Europe, you can still cut potential health risks by properly wearing a N95 mask. Ride on.


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