The skies were brilliant blue the day I arrived in Beijing. From the street, you could see the tops of skyscrapers. And from the tops of skyscrapers, you could see the outline of jagged mountains on the horizon.
This kind of visibility wasn’t normal, and sure enough within a few days, a haze began to set over the city. The tops of tall buildings disappeared in the smog. The air became heavier, and I found it harder to breathe, especially when I exercised outside, which I like to do. Cars in my neighborhood that hadn’t been moved for days became coated in residue of some kind. If you left a window open at your home, the dust seeped in and settled on the floor.
You get used to the pollution after a while, at least the sight of it. I treat it as a trade-off for living in a rapidly developing land of opportunity, where jobs for college-educated expats are in high demand.
My body has had a harder time adjusting. I’m often congested when I wake up in the morning, even though I don’t have a history of respiratory problems. My throat becomes irritated if I spend too much time outside when the pollution is severe. And I sometimes feel a heaviness in my chest that makes taking deep breaths more difficult.
I recently asked a Chinese friend with an infant son whether he was concerned about raising his son in a city with poor air quality. “I’m more concerned about finding a good kindergarten for him to attend,” he said. Competition to get into good schools is fierce at every level in China, even in kindergarten.
But he was worried enough that he bought a mask for his son to wear on days when the pollution was bad. I see people wearing masks every day, and I’ve always doubted that they made a difference. I asked a specialist with the American Lung Association whether wearing one would help protect me from the toxic air.
“While the masks may not be a complete waste, I doubt that they help at all with the air pollution,” the specialist said in an e-mail. “Ozone (smog) and particle pollution are extremely small particles, and would require a MUCH higher form of protection to avoid exposure. These masks may help for other reasons, like helping prevent the spread of cold and flu viruses, as well as warming the air on cold days, but the particles in air pollution are simply too small to be filtered out with these types of masks.”
He suggested the best way to protect my lungs was to limit outdoor activities when the pollution is really bad. So how do you define really bad? That depends whom you ask.
China’s air pollution watchdog, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), issues a daily air quality forecast based on measurements for particles in the atmosphere up to 10 micrometers, more commonly known as PM10. Unlike the United States and many other developed countries, the MEP does not measure PM2.5, particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers. PM2.5, often found in smoke and haze, has been linked to respiratory infections, asthma attacks and heart disease.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing also issues a daily air quality forecast, but its measurements include PM 2.5. Because of the difference in air quality standards, the warnings issued from the two agencies for the same day can be dramatically different.
Take Dec. 2, for example, when the MEP rated the air quality in Beijing as level 3 (slightly polluted). The MEP’s air quality scale is from 1 (best) to 5 (worst).
At 9 p.m. on Dec. 2, the U.S. Embassy rated the air quality at 496, the highest rating of the day. (Measurements are taken hourly.) The embassy ranks air quality on a scale from 0 to 500, with 500 being the worst. Any ranking over 300, according to the EPA’s Air Quality Index, “would trigger health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is likely to be affected.”
According to The Associated Press, some Beijing residents skeptical of the government’s pollution standards have purchased their own air quality monitors, ones that measure PM2.5 (The U.S. Embassy issues its daily forecasts through a Twitter feed. Twitter is blocked in China, so people without a virtual private network – software that allows you get around the “great firewall of China” – can’t read the embassy’s forecasts).
Perhaps in response, the MEP issued a news release last month saying it may consider altering its standards to include PM2.5. The MEP said it had amended air quality standards three times since 1982 to improve air quality. “However, the ambient air pollution has developed new features along with the rapid economic and social development in recent years, so it is necessary to make amendments to the ongoing air quality standards on the basis of the practices and experience,” the release said.
It’s unclear how soon the Chinese government may consider strengthening its air quality standards. After living in Beijing for a year and a half, I see no signs of the explosive growth of the last decade letting up. Because of that, air pollution will likely continue to be a problem.