Air Pollution

35If your trip to China was inspired by colorful photos of the Forbidden City on a crystal clear day or Shanghai’s glistening Pudong skyline reflecting off the Huangpu River, be prepared for the unfortunate reality that many days in China don’t look like that. If you’re following the news, you’ve surely encountered some less appealing images of the country, like locals sporting futuristic face masks and commuting through thick smog with the sun hidden behind a grimy haze. While some cities are worse than others, most (or pretty much all) big cities in the Mainland are heavily polluted. For these reasons, it shouldn’t be a surprise that in 2007, the World Bank announced that 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities were in China.

You don’t have to be a long-term China expat to be concerned about air pollution. In February 2013, after Beijing’s “Airpocalypse” that had pollution readings off the charts, the number of tourists passing through Chinese customs and immigration plummeted to 165,000 for the month, a decrease from 262,000 the previous February and the lowest number of visitors for any month in the past three years.

Travelers on a tight schedule may fret over canceled flights when heavy smog cuts down visibility at airports, while those with children may worry about the impact of polluted air on their little ones’ health. Pollution can have a real impact on your travel plans, but the air quality index doesn’t have to make or break your trip. Below, we’ll outline what you need to know about air pollution in China and what you can do to minimize its impact on your travel and your health.

Just below is a montage of images showing the varying quality of Beijing’s air in the space of one week in March 2013.

What are the causes?

48Every city is different. In most places, however (like Beijing for example), the pollution is the product of a number of factors, with coal-burning industrial operations as the leading cause. Coal provides 80% of China’s electricity, and much of the coal used here is a type that is particularly high in sulfur. Meanwhile, Beijing’s surrounding provinces, like Inner Mongolia, Shandong and Hebei, are home to a wealth of coal mining operations, cement and steel factories, and oil refineries that burn an estimated 350 million tons of coal a year.

Shanghai, on the other hand, gets hazy by other means. Of course there are factories on the outskirts of town, but a lot of the contamination comes from Shanghai’s constant state of construction. With such large-scale modernization efforts in the city center, dust and particles from the hundreds of construction sites are always floating around in the air. This, coupled with wind coming from the west bringing in smog from the city’s urban outskirts, can turn the mega-city into a grimy place. Actually, Shanghai in December 2013 reached some of its highest pollution levels ever, crossing the 500 PM2.5 marker and having its own Airpocalypse. 

For other cities, it’s the soaring number of cars that creates smog. With the economy in fifth gear, everybody in China seems to be buying an automobile. The impact of heavy traffic is made worse by the fact that China has been slow to adapt to international standards for fuel quality, resulting in much higher amounts of sulfur dioxide being released into the atmosphere by personal vehicles. From 2006 to 2010, China recorded an increase of nearly 10 million new cars hitting the road per year. That’s almost a million new cars per month!

Geography influences different cities’ air as well. Take Chengdu for example. Since the sprawling metropolis is surrounded by mountains, pollution tends to get trapped in the low-lying city until the wind direction changes and helps move the bad air out. North winds tend to bring clean air, but winds from the south and the east – heavily industrialized areas – bring in heavy smog.

Seasonal factors also occasionally compound the pollution problem. During the winter, coal use increases, as most central heating in northern China is powered by coal, making places like Xi’an more polluted than usual. In the spring, generally between March and May, sandstorms from the Gobi Desert in Central China sweep tons of dust into the atmosphere. Air quality readings even see a big spike during the Chinese New Year, when the sky across the whole nation fills with fireworks and the smoke they leave in their wake.

How is air quality measured?

1There are two types of air pollution measured in Mainland China: PM10 (particles less than 10 microns in diameter) and PM2.5 (particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter). The United States Embassy (and consulates) along with Chinese government-run stations across the country each maintain equipment that provides hourly readings, and both publish their own air quality index that incorporates PM2.5 and PM 10 data. Their hourly readings are reported on a 1-500 scale. Depending on the source you’re consulting, the same reading may be described differently, as you can see in the chart below.

Previously, the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection’s (MEP) index did not include data for the smaller PM2.5 pollutants. When it comes to air quality, smaller particles are considered more harmful because they are small enough to penetrate the lungs and enter the bloodstream. After public outcry and pressure, the MEP began including PM2.5 data in their measurements as of January 2012. Even after the adjustment, observers have noted that the US Embassy readings (there are embassies or consulates that measure the air in Beijing, Chengdu, Shenzhen and Shanghai) are frequently higher than the Chinese readings, a discrepancy that has only made deciphering air quality more complicated.

One possible explanation for the discrepancy is the fact that the US and Chinese pollution monitoring stations are located in different parts of the city. In Beijing, for example, the US measures PM2.5 levels from its embassy in the east, near the heavily trafficked Third Ring Road, while the Beijing government releases measurements from a monitoring site in Xicheng District on the less-trafficked western side. Others say that China might be giving a low-ball reading of the pollution to save face, while the US is exaggerating it for political reasons.

Despite the differences between the two sides’ readings, monitoring hourly air quality readings is a good way to take control of your trip and make plans based on the day’s pollution levels. If they are peaking, it may be a good idea for you to plan a trip to a museum instead of an outing at a park that particular day.


What are the health effects?

China's Most Polluted Cities 2013Depending on the timing of your visit, you may be facing a string of hazardous air days or a week of beautiful blue skies (remember that Chinese cities aren’t polluted every day; you can get some very nice days every once in a while). On a heavily polluted day, it’s possible to develop irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, along with coughing, phlegm, chest tightness, and shortness of breath. Sometimes it will even make you feel sluggish and under the weather. Travelers with heart conditions should note that air pollution has been associated with an increased risk of heart attack and an increase in blood pressure, and a warning to asthmatics goes without saying.

To put the exposure risk into context, Beijing-based family doctor Richard Saint Cyr teamed up with a professor at Brigham Young University to study how the effects of breathing polluted air compare with smoking cigarettes. He concluded that “A day in Beijing is like smoking one sixth of a cigarette. More specifically, on an average day in Beijing, an average adult inhales a total of 1.8 mg of PM2.5 particles from air pollution, which is 1/6 of the average 12 mg of PM2.5 particles inhaled from an average cigarette” ( This comparison may be reassuring to some, or potentially alarming to the elderly, asthmatics, or those with heart and lung conditions.

Travelers with children may be especially concerned about pollution, and research does seem to suggest that children are more vulnerable. For starters, children take in more air per unit of body weight at a given level of exertion than do adults. But children are considered more at risk mostly because their lungs are still developing. For girls, lungs finish developing at 18, while boys’ lungs mature by their early 20s. Luckily, the steps you can take to prevent exposure for children are the same as for adults.

Travelers planning a long-term stay in China face more intense, but still manageable, risks. Long-term exposure to polluted air is the number one cause of lung cancer, which is the leading cause of death in China. Extended exposure to pollutants is associated with depressed lung functions, even in healthy people. Studies have tied premature births, birth defects and low-weight babies to pollution. Overall, the World Health Organization estimated in 2007 that 656,000 Chinese were dying prematurely every year from health conditions caused by air pollution.

What can you do about it?

Short-term travelers

Check the web or download apps to monitor air quality. You can’t make wise decisions about pollution unless you have information. (A sunny, nice-looking day isn’t always an indicator of great air quality, either, so it’s best to consult an official reading.) Navigate for real-time data from a number of cities, or download one of the many air quality apps available for iPhones, Androids and other smart-phones.

Buy a face mask. Inexpensive pollution masks can be found at 7-11s and other chain convenience stores throughout big cities (though these masks are less common in smaller cities). Simple cloth surgical-type masks will provide a limited amount of protection, but for a short stay they’re better than nothing. N95 type masks are also widely available and useful against protecting your body against air pollution – search for an N95 face mask online and you’ll get a number of results. Purchasing a mask before you leave is wise, they may not be easily found once you arrive.


For something a little more heavy-duty, try a Totobobo (, which filters both PM10 and PM2.5 protection and can be easily adjusted to fit a child. On the high end, masks such as a 3M brand 8812 industrial facemask will remove more than 95% of pollutants.

Long-term travelers2

If you’re going to be in one of China’s most polluted cities for the long-term, make an effort to stay somewhere as pollutant-free as possible by keeping an air-purifier in your bedroom. You’ll find a wide variety of models of all sizes and prices, but no matter which one you choose, it should have a HEPA filtration system and use activated carbon. IQ Air is the most reputable brand on the market, but can run as much as US$6,000. Filling your home with green plants is also an inexpensive way to purify air indoors.


When you can’t avoid being exposed to pollution from the air, minimize your exposure from other sources. Generally speaking, China’s tap water contains heavy metals and other chemicals that can’t be eliminated by boiling. Choose bottled water instead, and get it from a large, reputable supplier. Help your body fight the harmful effects of pollution by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, which contain antioxidants and enzymes that counteract pollution damage.


Two images of Baita Temple (白塔寺), Beijing. Guess which day the air quality was better.

Is it getting better?

Yes and no. China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas (the US is second), but the good news is that the government has recognized this horrible problem and has announced plans to fix it. In 2013, the CCP pledged to fight pollution by investing US$275 billion (about the size of Hong Kong’s GDP and twice the amount the nation spends on the military per year) over the next five years.

Local governments are also doing their part to try and clean up their cities. Beijing is spending billions of dollars by planting forests on the outskirts of town to block sandstorms, and Shanghai is putting up “pollution nets” around construction projects to prevent the dust from seeping into the streets. The country as a whole is also undergoing a massive public transportation drive, with the creation of BRT (Bust Rapid Transit systems), and dozens of cities are building and/or expanding their underground subway systems to reduce carbon emissions from cars. Currently, 11 Chinese cities have a metro system, but that number will be up to 20 very soon.

As the country takes measures to improve its air, skeptics claim that it’s too late. They shout that the damage has already been done and these new measures are merely too little too late. Others, especially those in the government, envision China as a leader in renewable energy sometime in the near future (actually, China is currently the number one investor in green energy on the planet). They recognize that there is a long way to go, but the wheels have been set in motion to pave the way for a cleaner and healthier China. 



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