Air quality in Shanghai has been the number one health concern for Shanghai expats in previous years. In 2016, however, the issue has been forgotten at times as we enjoy more clear skies.
After a not-so-good 2015, during which air pollution in Shanghai slightly increased over the previous year, the first 10 months of 2016 saw great improvement.
The average density of PM2.5 from January through October was 43 micrograms per cubic meter, compared to 53 for the whole of 2015.
Unfortunately the good times could not last through all of 2016, as smog has returned in winter months.
The final number for average density of PM2.5 in Shanghai in 2016 came in at 45ug/m3, still a very good 15% decrease from 2015.
This article looks at the reasons behind the improvement during most of 2016, but also cautions why we need to stay vigilant against Shanghai smog.
If you are searching for products that can help protect you from the dangers of air pollution please see our list at the end of this article.
To better visualize the data for the last few years see our new air pollution in Shanghai infographic.
While we can’t really call this data ‘a breath of fresh air’ it certainly indicates a welcome improvement.
Based on health experts' recommendations, however, the amounts of smog in Shanghai are still dangerous to our health, as you can see below:
One of the reasons for the improvement in air quality in Shanghai in the summer months of 2016 was the implementation of measures by the authorities in preparation for the G20 summit in nearby Hangzhou in early September.
Shanghai suspended the operation of a number of chemical plants and other high polluting enterprises to ensure world leaders enjoyed a ‘G20 Blue’.
The weather in Shanghai in 2016 has also been a key factor leading to improved air quality.
During the first quarter we had more rain than in the same period of 2015. And during the second quarter we had more wind from gales and typhoons than usual.
Shanghai expats, however, should not become complacent.
The 2015 average air quality in Shanghai was also better than 2014’s up until the end of October, but this was followed by much higher pollution levels during the winter months.
Experts have also warned that the winter of 2016, 2017 will likely bring worse air quality to all of China than last year due to La Nina, a climate pattern in the Pacific Ocean which is forecast to reduce the average temperatures this winter by 0.5 degrees.
Lower temperatures have led to some areas in the North turning on their centralized municipal heating systems earlier than usual. These systems, powered by coal, cause large amounts of air pollution, some of which will find its way down to Shanghai as the winds shift to the South in winter months.
Plans have recently been announced to replace coal with clean energy for heating in the North.
Approximately 20% of Shanghai smog is caused by pollutants from other provinces, much of it concentrated during the winter months.
Beijing and other areas in the North have experienced off-the-charts pollution levels several times this winter. The national Ministry of Environmental Protection has criticized several local governments in the North for not doing enough to reduce air pollution.
On November 2nd we had our first bout of serious air pollution in Shanghai for many months. The US Air Quality Index (AQI) hit 180 with a PM2.5 reading of 112.
On November 19th Shanghai’s AQI hit the magic number of 200 for the first time since last winter, corresponding to a PM2.5 density of 150 mg/u3.
A PM2.5 density of 150 is the level at which the US AQI and the China AQI reach parity. Below this amount the Chinese index is more lax than the US index, with lower AQI numbers attributed to the same PM2.5 readings. Our China air quality article discusses the differences between the US AQI and the China AQI.
December has since brought many more days with air quality in Shanghai near to or exceeding 200 on the US AQI index.
On the morning of Dec. 17th the AQI hit 249. And on Dec. 23rd the Shanghai air quality index hit 262, with a PM2.5 reading of 212 ug/m3
On December 14th, 2016 the Shanghai government adjusted its air quality alert system.
The bar for issuing a red alert for forecasted severely bad air quality in Shanghai in the following 24 hours, the highest alert, has been lowered from AQI 450 to 400.
The bar for issuing a Blue alert, the lowest level alert, is lowered from when the AQI was forecast to be between 201 and 300 over the next 24 hours to when the AQI index stays between 151 and 200 with short-time severe pollution expected within 24 hours.
The first Blue alert for Shanghai under the new system was issued on December 16th.
Some construction sites will be forced to suspend operations and some heavy polluting factories will be required to reduce operations when the blue alert is raised.
Such alerts have shown good results in Beijing, where the first air pollution Red alert of 2016 was issued on December 15th, resulting in many cars being ordered off the roads.
The pollution levels in the following days in Beijing, although still extremely high, were lower than forecasted.
New research conducted in the UK has shown that air pollution particles not only affect our heart and lungs, but can also find their way in to the brain, thereby being a potential cause of Alzheimers and other neurodegenerative diseases.
In a news release in September 2016, the World Bank labeled air pollution as the "deadliest form of pollution" and the fourth leading risk factor for premature deaths, costing the global economy $225 billion in 2013.
This cost could balloon to $2.6 trillion a year by 2060 according to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
A 2016 report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) stated that more than 430,000 people died prematurely due to PM2.5 pollution in 2013 within the 28 country European Union (EU), with the estimated ‘years of life lost' (YLL) numbering 4,668,000.
The highest annual average PM2.5 density listed in the EEA's report was 30.4 ug/m3 for Serbia and Macedonia, while most other countries recorded less than 20 ug/m3.
If the EEA's estimates are anywhere near accurate, Shanghai’s average annual PM2.5 density range of 45-55 ug/m3 over the last few years certainly will take its toll.
It is important to understand that looks can be deceiving; even when the AQI is around 150 on the US index (PM2.5 density of 60) we can still have blue sky.
Indoor air pollution is even more difficult to notice with the naked eye.
Testing conducted by Global Innovations Green Algorithms (GIGA), an environmental research organization founded by a Canadian expat in Shanghai, showed that indoor air quality was often as bad if not worse than outdoor air quality in Shanghai.
Apart from PM2.5, indoor air can also contain other toxic pollutants known as volatile organic compounds (VOC). So we must be careful to not only remove PM2.5 from indoor air, but other pollutants as well.
Installing air purifiers in your home and office, where we spend up to 80% of our time, is still critical for our health in Shanghai even as the average air quality is improving. Be sure to purchase air purifiers with carbon filters as well as HEPA filters in order to remove VOCs.
Kids are even more prone to the effects of air pollution than adults. As their lungs are not fully developed, children's lung capacity can be permanently stunted due to air pollution exposure.
Standard pollution masks are often not suited for children since they can not fit snugly enough to block polluted air entering the nose and mouth. Fortunately several manufacturers provide masks specially designed for children.
Pollution particles will stick to your skin and clothes, so when you come inside after a smoggy day in Shanghai take off your shoes and outer clothing, and take a shower.
Leafy green plants placed around your home is a good way to help clean out some of the PM2.5 and other pollution particles. You can find many of the best plants for cleaning air pollution at Shanghai's largest flower and plant market.
Having an electronic monitor to continuously check your indoor air quality in Shanghai will also give you some peace of mind. During one high pollution day recently the AQI reading on my air pollution monitor plummeted from nearly 200 to under 30 within 15 minutes of closing the windows and turning on my air purifiers.
Before opening the windows to ventilate your home or going outside you should check the AQI and PM2.5 numbers on one of the many China apps for air quality.
And, of course, always have an N95 mask, a special face mask to deal with air pollution, handy if you must go outside when the AQI exceeds 200 (lower if you have respiratory problems).
The many measures adopted by local authorities over the last few years have certainly also made a significant contribution to the improved air quality in Shanghai.
The Shanghai government committed to reducing the average annual PM2.5 density to 49.6 ug/m3 (a 20% reduction from 2012 levels) by 2017 as part of the Clean Air Action Plan initiated in 2013.
Furthermore, Zhang Quan, director of the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau recently announced, “Our plan is to reduce the yearly average density to 42 by 2020, and then to 35 after that.”
According to Zhang, Shanghai recently installed equipment to reduce discharges from 22 sets of power generators and required over 1,400 manufacturers to reduce their emissions of VOCs.
By November 2016, 766 of these factories had already completed the necessary renovations.
Emissions from vehicles, which cause around 20% of Shanghai's air pollution, are also a key target. About 90,000 heavy polluting vehicles and 30,000 old cars were taken off the roads in 2015.
Zhang continued “This year we will continue with the elimination of vehicles produced before 2005 and require vessels in Shanghai’s ports to use cleaner fuel,”
The government has also implemented many preferential policies to encourage the use of electric and other ‘green cars’.
Many large construction sites, which contribute about 10% of Shanghai's pollution, have installed dust detectors so authorities can require them to shut down when they produce too much pollution.
Fines of 154 million yuan (US$ 22 million) have been levied on over 2,000 pollution related cases in Shanghai in the first 9 months of 2016, an approximately 40% increase on the previous year. These much stiffer fines are based on the stricter air pollution law which came in to effect on October 1st, 2014.
The penalties were once again increased, by as much as ten times, on October 1st 2016 when amended environmental protection rules came into effect.
Some success has also been achieved with Shanghai’s crack-down on straw burning, which causes about 10% of air pollution in Shanghai.
In December 2016 Shanghai hosted an inspection team from the central authorities in Beijing which ordered about 500 enterprises to shut down or initiate renovations to reduce pollution.
More than 900 district-level environmental improvement projects have already been planned for 2015 to 2017 to help improve air quality in Shanghai, and many more are being looked at.
More information on Shanghai Air Quality
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