Like any other place in the world, China has great things and some not so great things. Amongst the most troublesome of all the “not so nice things” is the incredible pollution you see most of the time. Yes, we do have some clear days in Suzhou where you can see blue skies and some white clouds; you can see across the lake in front our apartment and way beyond. Unfortunately this is not the norm. Lately, we have had a number of days where the pollution index has been really concerning.
So what is this pollution all about, what is the effect on our health and what can we do about it?
What’s in the air that pollutes it? Elements such as ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Sometimes the environment will look OK, but the pollution levels are not. You can get up to the minute updates on pollution indexes for the following countries/areas by clicking on your choice of China – US – Europe. In fact, most of the information shared in this post comes from the shared China and US links.
What made me write this post after being in China for 2 years? Well, I always knew that the pollution in China is real bad due to their very laxed environmental regulations and heavy reliance on coal for their massive energy needs. However, on my way to work yesterday the pollution was the worst I can remember.
DISCLAIMER – the majority of the information shown below comes from several sources; I am not an expert in pollution, just trying to provide some information and links where you can get additional information on the subject.
Yes, it looks like fog, but it is loaded with pollution. It was actually hazardous to drive due to poor visibility. Did not see the actual air quality index, but Shanghai (about 40 miles east of Suzhou) was 258 – very bad…more on the ratings later.
Regardless of pollution levels construction goes on 24/7
This is a picture from today (Saturday, Jan. 26) in the morning. Usually we can see the small pagoda on the left quite clear, not this past few days. View from our living room looking right.
View from our living room looking left. Again, the building in the background are usually visible. Today, barely.
So what was todays pollution index in Suzhou. At the time I started to write this post it was 236, just checked and it is now 258 – the table below shows details:
In this graph from the AQIC group in Beijing China. According to their measurements the air quality in Suzhou at noon on Saturday, Feb. 26 was 258. On the right you can see the rating for other Chinese cities; one as high as 331. So what do all this numbers mean?
How does the rating work?
These are the EPA definitions. As you compare them to the ones provided by the Chinese government (next picture) you will see definition vary one the number (6 to 7) and the Chinese one (below) provide additional guidance around precautions to take for most.
Chinese Environmental Agency pollution measurements
The pollutants being tacked are:
PM2.5 – Particulate Matter < 2.5µm – very small, very dangerous and on the increase thanks to Biomass burning.
PM10 – Particulate Matter < 10µm (particles likely to be inhaled by humans). Produced by vehicle exhaust – diesels produce more. It is not good if you have asthma or breathing problems. It can irritate your eyes, nose, throat, lungs, and can affect the heart and blood hence reduce your life expectancy.
SO2 – Sulphur Dioxide. Produced by burning fossil fuels (coal and oil) at power stations. Volcanos produce their fair share!! When it is mixed with rain it makes Acid rain. Yet again, it is not good for asthma sufferers or people with breathing problems. It can irritate your eyes and lungs.
NO2 – Nitrogen Dioxide. 50% caused by transport, 25% by power stations. At home – your gas stove. Not nice for those with breathing problems. It can cause wheezing, coughing, colds etc., but if you have asthma it can cause more frequent and intense asthma attacks.
CO – Carbon Monoxide. 90% caused by transport. In the home you can’t see it, you can’t smell it and it has no taste – but it can give you brain damage or even kill you. Not to be underestimated.
O3 – Low Level Ozone. Produced by sunlight acting on vehicle exhaust fumes. It can cause eye and lung irritation, lowers resistance to infection, not good if you have asthma. It can poison plants.
How does this compare to the US?
Very good at this time of the year. The only area showing some real concerning ratings is located in Utah, not sure what is driving such high rating.
Decided to look at monthly averages in Los Angeles; a city we often hear it has high pollution. As you can see it does, with the warmest days in summer being the worst, but nothing compared to China.
This chart shows some of the short/long-term effects of being exposed to high levels of air pollution such as those listed here. Especially not good for children and the elderly.
So what can we do to avoid exposure?
Seen many Chinese wearing masks, but the majority do not seem to meet the requirements listed on this picture. Have seen a few cyclists with the mask on the left and today we saw two Expats with plain masks; that was an unusual sight.
Again, I am no expert on this topic. However, it is clear that for the past 2 years my wife and I have been exposed to levels of pollution we would not have experienced if we had remained in the US. Knowing that we will return in a month for good is good news for our lungs. I am hoping that, as with smokers that stop smoking, our lungs will cleanse some and return to near what they used to be before we came to China. I must say that I have not felt any of the symptoms noted above, even though I rode my bicycle just about each day for 10 miles. However, I am sure my lungs are at least a bit more polluted that when we first arrived.
This post is not meant to scare those who read it and live in China. It is intended to share a real concern and hope that, for those living in China, you take precautions that will minimize your exposure to these pollutants. Also hope that the new government in Beijing will step up their battle against pollution and protect their citizens a lot better than they have done so far.
ONE DAY HAS GONE BY SINCE I POSTED THE ABOVE ARTICLE. CHECKED THE AIR QUALITY AND SEE THE TABLE BELOW FOR RESULTS. AS YOU CAN SEE WITHIN 24 HOURS A SIGNIFICANT REDUCTION IN POLLUTANTS. Yesterday was an unhealthy 258 index; today and respectable 123…lightly polluted. Want to assure readers understand the levels do vary a great deal; sometimes within the same day.
Resources for this posting:
1) Air Now site (http://www.airnow.gov)
2) Air Quality Now site (http://www.airqualitynow.eu)
3) Insidio – China Air Quality Site (http://www.aqicn.info/?) In this site you can download widgets for your PC, MAC, iPhone, Android phone etc that will allow you to track air quality in the Chinese city of your choice. Useful tool that will keep you aware so you can take adequate steps to protect you and your family.