Is Beijing air as bad as you think?

Will Beijing’s air be the end of you? Maybe not.

There are many wonderful things about Beijing, but the air isn’t one of them. Even on a supposedly blue-sky day, air-quality index (AQI) readings for particulate matter (PM) of 2.5 micrometres – those small enough to get into the bloodstream and do damage to the respiratory system – can be in the hundreds. On really bad days, the AQI pushes past the 500 limit; a level that’s officially ‘hazardous’ or ‘beyond index’, but now known locally (thanks to a mischievous tweet from the US Embassy) as ‘crazy bad’.

But if the thought of a lungbuggering apocalypse has you wailing and rending your clothes, you might want to calm down a bit – not least because you’ll have to go outside to restock your wardrobe. The fact is that while Beijing’s air is dangerous, it’s not the instantly cancer-causing, life-ending death-smog that some doomsayers claim it to be.

To get the lowdown, we spoke to Dr Richard Saint Cyr, a family medicine doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital. His analysis of research performed by environmental consultant Steven Q Andrews, and Dr C Arden Pope III, one of the world’s top environmental science experts, suggests that, on average, an adult in Beijing inhales 1.8mg of PM2.5 a day. That’s the equivalent of just one sixth of a cigarette; even when the reading hits 500, it’s around 75 percent of a cigarette. And although no data is available to compare the two, Dr Saint Cyr speculates that the carcinogens present in tobacco smoke might be more dangerous than the particles in Beijing’s air.

Perhaps more importantly, his analysis suggests the risk of heart and lung disease is not as severe as some think. ‘The relative risk of heart and lung problems in Beijing [is increased by] around 1.4 (40 percent) when compared with perfect air,’ he explains. ‘In a city like Paris it’s 1.2 (20 percent). Many would argue that is not very high in comparison to smoking, being stressed or overweight. So if you have to choose your lifestyle risk – and you could argue that, for many people, living in Beijing is a lifestyle choice – there are many other things that affect your health more than air pollution.’

Still, even in the short term, air pollution causes problems, from lowered immune systems to aggravated asthma and chronic coughs. There’s also the danger of PM2.5 in the bloodstream triggering a heart attack or stroke in those at risk – with sharp increases in incidences linked internationally to spikes in air pollution.

There’s also the issue of children: studies performed in Los Angeles – one of the US’s most famously polluted cities – by the University of Southern California suggest that kids growing up in smoggy environments suffer a permanent decrease in lung function. ‘There is a question of whether the changes are clinically important or whether the kids will grow up to be totally normal,’ says Dr Saint Cyr. ‘That’s the main issue. But there is permanent damage, and children are definitely at risk. Lungs don’t stop growing until the early teenage years, and I am especially concerned about infants and toddlers. At the least, all those children should have air purifiers in their bedrooms. I think it’s a no-brainer to decrease the risk as much as possible.’

Indeed, Dr Saint Cyr’s own research showed that the interiors of houses he tested had a 50-80 percent pollution level of that of the exterior, suggesting that, for PM2.5, the window is no barrier. ‘Remember that 90 percent of our lives are spent indoors and we should control our indoor air as much as we can, especially in bedrooms. If you can afford it, I’d prioritise getting a purifier over buying a mask.’

But for those at risk, healthy living in Beijing ultimately comes down to moderation and care in all aspects of life – not just air. ‘Car safety, food safety, mental health, stress, air pollution – all these things are dangers in an urban environment and everything adds up. If you’re overweight, or if you’re not exercising and you’re smoking, and you add pollution to that – yeah, that is a mix that will cause trouble. There are always lots of reasons to be superhealthy, but there are even more when you live in China.’

Pollution protection

‘Don’t just get a surgical mask,’ says Dr Saint Cyr. ‘The best ones are rated N95, which literally means 95 percent of air particles smaller than PM0.3 are filtered out. The Respro cycling masks work really well, but personally I like the Totobobo masks.’

Air purifiers
‘I haven’t seen the data on the Chinese brands, but I’ve tested three imported brands – Blueair, IQAir and Alen Air – and all of them did well. You need to make sure you get one with certified HEPA filters; it will cost at least a couple of thousand RMB. If you’re only spending 300RMB, it won’t work.’
  • 4 out of 5 stars