How Bad is the Air Pollution in Beijing and China?
Extremely bad! On a summer’s day with clear blue skies and excellent visibility the pollution levels in Beijing are way above the standards set by the World Health Organization. In winter when coaled fired heating is used and there is no wind or rain to remove the pollution, the levels of pollution measured by the US embassy (the most reliable source) is off the charts and at least 30 to 45 times the recommended safety levels. What is even scarier is Beijing is not the most polluted city in China. It is not even in the top ten of the most polluted cities in China.
Linfen (large city in Shanxi Province), Lanzhou (capital of Gansu province) and Urumqi (capital of Xinjiang) are China’s worst cities for air pollution and among the top 10 of the world’s worst cities for air pollution. So if you think Beijing is bad, you aint seen nothing.
An Introduction to China’s Air Pollution
With air pollution, the smaller an air pollution particle is, is, the more dangerous it is so to measure air pollution properly, you have to measure these small particles. The best method of measuring air pollution is he PM 2.5 index.
PM 2.5 –This is an index that measures particles that are 2.5 microns or less in diameter. These particles are dangerous because they are small enough to penetrate your lungs and enter your blood stream. In the US anything over 100 is unhealthy, over 300 is hazardous and the index stops at 500.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that the average particulate matter reading from 16 airport smokers' lounges was 166.6. Normal daily levels in Beijing range up to 300 or 400. On really bad days in Beijing that are frequent in winter, the daily levels will exceed 500. American cities rarely record levels higher than 300 and that is only during forest fires.
Measuring Air Pollution in Beijing
The most reliable source of air pollution measurements in Beijing is the US embassy which measures PM 2.5. You can see hourly PM 2.5 readings of Beijing on the US embassy’s pollution twitter feed here
In 2010 the Chinese government asked the US embassy to stop publishing the readings of their PM 2.5 monitor. Naturally the embassy refused.
Ok so the pollution levels in Beijing and much of China are extreme but what does this mean for health? The heath effects are extreme and the key effects have been listed below.
Lung Cancer – According to the Beijing Institute for Cancer, lung cancer is the leading cause of death in China and air pollution is the number one cause of lung cancer. The cases of lung cancer in Beijing increased by 56% from 2000 to 2009.
Respiratory Disease – 15% of deaths in China are related to or caused directly by respiratory disease.
Births – Increased number of premature births and low weight babies
Lung Function – Depressed lung functions in healthy people
Hacking Coughs – In Beijing and Shanghai hacking coughs are common
Cardiovascular Disease – Air pollution can trigger heart attacks and heart problems and is responsible for increased blood pressure and reduced cell counts.
Birth Defects – In towns like Gaojiagao in Shanxi Province air pollution from coal has been linked to birth defects such as extra fingers and toes, cleft pallets, mental retardation and congenital heart disease.
656,000 Premature Deaths – The World Health Organization estimated that in 2007 656,000 Chinese were dying prematurely each year from ailments caused by indoor and outdoor air pollution. That is 15% of the population of Melbourne Australia dying each year.
350,000 -400,000 Deaths – The World Bank included in a 2007 report that 350,000 to 400,000 deaths were related to out door pollution in China. These figures were later removed from the report due to government pressure.
300,000 Deaths Annually – According to statistics from the Chinese government 300,000 people die each year from out door pollution. Being a government statistic, this number is very likely to be understated.
Airports – With visibility on runways often restricted to just several hundred meters, international and domestic flights are often cancelled on a bad day.
Acid Rain – China is the world’s largest produce of sulfur dioxide which causes acid rain. Acid rain falls on up to a third of mainland China and causes damage equivalent to 12 percent of China’s GNP which includes reduced crop yields.
Water Supplies – Much of the toxic muck in the air eventually enters China’s lakes rivers and underground water supplies which adds to ground pollution from sources such as factories and sewage. Beijing’s residents aren’t keen on tap water and bottled water sales have soared.
Lost Production – An indirect result of the health effects of air pollution is lost productivity when workers are sick on the job, take time off or are dead.
Medical Care – Literally billions of dollars worth of medical resources such as hospital beds and medicine are used to treat people sick from air pollution.
Causes of Air Pollution in Beijing and China
The phenomenal economic growth and development China has experienced in the last 30 years has come at a cost. That costs includes a number of different forms of pollution. The two main causes of air pollution are directly related to China’s development and are listed below.
Coal – Coal is the number once source of air pollution in China with 80% of China’s electricity and 70% of China’s total energy coming from coal. Approximately six million tons of coal is burnt every day to power factories, heat homes and cook meals. Much of this coal is the coal type that is very high in sulfur. Coal consumption is particularly high in winter when most of central heating in northern China is powered by coal.
Cars – There was 3.5 million cars registered in Beijing in 2008 and this number increased to 5 million in 2011. A large number of these cars run on low grade fuel which makes the pollution they produce particularly bad.
Dust – Sand storms from the Gobi desert in central China often sweep tons of dust into Beiing’s atmosphere between March and May. Pollution from these sand storms can be so that that flights are diverted and cancelled. Dust from construction sites also contributes to Beijing’s air pollution.
The Government’s Response To Air Pollution
With a problem that is causing so much harm in many different ways, you’d expect a strong response from the government. If so, you’d be disappointed. These are the main responses so far.
Warnings - The government issues daily air pollution reports and warns people to avoid out door activities and warns the young, elderly and people with respiratory problems to remain inside when the pollution is really bad.
Improved Measurements – The Beijing municipal government used an air pollution index based on particles called PM10 which are larger than the PM2.5 particles and less dangerous. Starting on the 1st January 2013 they switched to a new index based on the concentration of PM 2.5
Recent Actions – In January 2013 when air pollution was extreme, the Beijing government suspended services of 30% of official vehicles and shut down 103 heavily polluting businesses for several days.
Vehicle Controls – The Beijing government announced that it will remove 180,000 older vehicles from the rods and control excess growth in new car sales. This is a joke considering the current car numbers and the current lack of controls on car ownership.
The Future – The government’s top priority is stability and that means an economy that creates and maintains jobs and increases wages comes first. Reducing pollution would increase energy costs, reduce manufacturing output, lower tax income and have other short term negative effects on the economy. So don’t expect the government to make changes to significantly improve air pollution in the near future.
The Peoples Response to Air Pollution
Most Chinese living in Beijing and the other heavily polluted cities take the pollution in their stride though recently there has been a lot of complaints and protests. The more common ways people have of dealing with air pollution are
Masks – These range from cloth masks with weir and crazy designs that are basically useless and extremely common to mask with filters.
Air Pollution Domes – A recent trend is the use of large domes out doors. For example the International School of Beijing uses a dome for outdoor sports. When the PM 2.5 readings outside was 650, the reading in the dome was 25. These domes cost millions.
Immigration – Many people who can afford to leave China and immigrate to countries such as Canada and Australia that have a reputation for clean healthy environments.
Air Purifiers – Many families use air purifiers for their homes that range in price from small $50 models to the larger models that can cost up to and over $6000. Ironically these purifiers use electricity with further exacerbates the air pollution situation.
Air Pollution and Travel In China
What does all this bad news on air pollution mean for you as a tourist? If you are an asthmatic or have respiratory problems, you will need to time your travels to avoid cities like Beijing in winter when the pollution is the worst. It will also mean that you should limit the time you spend in the big (and polluted) cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
Timing – Even without pollution winter is not a very good time to travel in China. The south is cold and the north is freezing with temperatures below -15C as the norm. You can have a much better time travelling in spring and autumn and even summer if you avoid the south.
Avoid Cities – Some of the best tourism sites and travel experiences are outside the cities so for most people there is no need to spend a lot of time in the polluted cities. For example you have the islands of Hong Kong, the mountains of Changbaishan, the highlands of Yunnan Province and the magnificence of Tibet if you can get in. There are also many beautiful coastal cities with minimal pollution that have loads of cultural appeal you can enjoy such as Xiamen, Qingdao, Zhuhai and Dalian.