How to cope with China smog as an Expat
China is one of the most exciting places to live and work in. The culture is interesting and rich, the people are friendly, there are a lot of fun things to do and exotic places to see.
It also provides a diverse international environment to raise your children.
But as expatriates move to China to pursue their interests and dreams, one thing they have to grapple with is the high levels of air pollution they have to endure daily.
Below is a look at how as an expatriate, you can protect yourself and your children from China smog.
We also have lists of where to buy smog masks and air purifiers at the end of the article.
Smog is made of up of sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide(NO2), carbon monoxide(CO), particulate matter (PM 2.5 and PM 10) and ground ozone (O3).
Though all these substances are harmful, PM2.5 and Ozone (O3) will have the most impact on your health, due to their microscopic size.
PM2.5 is emitted during combustion activities such as coal burning, diesel combustion in motor vehicles, wood burning, power plants and industrial processes. The winter months in China see the highest levels of PM2.5 due to increased coal burning and weather patterns.
Ozone is formed when Nitrous oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react with sunlight. VOCs and NOx are emitted by chemical plants, refineries, car exhaust and vapors from consumer solvents. Shanghai weather in the summer is ideal for creating Ozone.
Due to the dangers that particulates and ground ozone pose, the World Health Organization provided guidelines in 2005 for safe levels of these pollutants.
For instance, for PM2.5, exposure within a 24-hour period should not exceed 25 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3), while the average exposure over a year should not exceed 10 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3).
Chinese standards are less strict, allowing for a yearly PM2.5 average of 35 micrograms per cubic meter.
The levels of pollution experienced in China, especially PM2.5 particulates, are many times higher than the allowed safe levels. On most days, air quality index ranks at above 150 in Chinese cities such as Beijing, with extremely smoggy days being as much as 10 times higher than safe levels.
The WHO has classified particulate matter as a carcinogenic. PM2.5, being a lot smaller than PM10, will penetrate past the bronchi into the alveoli (the air exchange region in the lungs) and over time, can cause lung cancer_ up to 36% more increase for every 10 micrograms/m3.
Other documented complications of particulate matter and ozone exposure include cardiovascular complications, birth defects and premature deaths.
Ozone, when found at ground level is bad and when breathed in, can cause irritation of the lungs, worsening of asthma attacks and other respiratory diseases, inflammation and infection of airways among others.
In August 2015, authorities in Beijing grounded 2.5 million cars in preparation for the 2015 China Victory Day Parade. The result was clear skies for two weeks, with the AQI as low as 17. This was the cleanest Beijing air had been in ages.
But do clear skies mean there is nothing to worry about?
Since ozone formation increases with increased sunlight, clear skies means that levels of ozone will continue to rise throughout the day as VOCs and NOx continue to be emitted into the air by vehicles and through other industrial processes.
Not to mention, VOCs are still emitted indoors by household chemicals, furnishings and cooking gas.
There could also be other sources of air pollution to watch out for, such as pollen and mould.
If you have a sensitive respiratory system, you might still find yourself reacting to pollutants in the air, even though pollutant levels on non-smoggy days are considered safe.
In an economy as large as China's, government efforts to tackle smog will take a long time to make a noticeable impact. The question that begs therefore is, what can you do to protect yourself against China smog during your stay?
1. Pollution Face Masks
In the 1st century AD, a Roman commander by the name of Pliny the Elder advised miners to use animal bladders to protect themselves from red oxide. This, incidentally, was the first time a pollution mask, aka respirator, was used. Later iterations of the respirator included using wet cloth or rubberised material.
A look at most pollution-related photos from China reveals that though many people wear masks, most of them are either surgical masks or masks made out of cloth.
Just like the wet cloth respirator recommended by Leonardo DaVinci in the 16th century, or Pliny’s animal bladder, surgical masks and most other low-quality masks are permeable and thus only provide protection against certain large particles and not the more dangerous pollutants in China smog.
Since surgical masks are not designed with carbon filters, nor do they fit tightly against the wearer’s face, they are not effective against PM2.5, PM10, viruses or bacteria.
You can see therefore, why when buying a smog mask, knowing its composition is important for you to get maximum protection.
What to look for when buying a China pollution mask:
Make sure it’s rated well
The rating on a mask will tell you how much pollutants a mask can filter out. U.S. NIOSH ratings or EU FFP ratings are the most reliable ratings to use. Respirators that are N99 rated, mean they can filter over 99 percent of particles that are greater than 0.3 microns in diameter, which is a lot smaller than PM2.5.
It should have a carbon filter
For protection against Ozone and S02, the respirator should have a carbon filter.
The mask should fit securely
Fit and comfort is especially important where children pollution masks are concerned. If you buy a mask that is not meant for a child’s face, it will let in pollutants.
It should be easy to breathe in
The valve system should allow you to breath without any difficulty. Even the slightest resistance in breathing can be very uncomfortable.
If you use a mask for running outdoors ensure it can handle rapid breathing during physical exercise.
Long lasting filters
Filters have to be changed after a while as they get clogged with dust and other pollutants. Make sure the mask you choose can withstand abuse from pollutants for longer.
2. Are your kids safe in school from China smog?
Air pollution is more harmful to children as their respiratory systems are still developing. When enrolling your kids to a school, find out whether:
International schools specially for expat kids tend to uphold air quality standards a lot better.
3. Take advantage of technology
There are many apps through which you can monitor china smog levels, even by the hour.
If you are about to go outside of your house or office, it helps to check china apps for air quality first.
You can now also purchase one of a number of relatively inexpensive devices for monitoring your own indoor air quality.
4. Embrace an active life
Research has shown that people who exercise have stronger respiratory systems which are able to eliminate pollutants more effectively.
The safest place to exercise is indoors but if you like running outdoors in China, you can still do so if you take these necessary precautions:
Note: The AQI figures mentioned in this article are based on the U.S. Air Quality Index standard. For an explanation of the difference between the U.S. and China Air Quality Index standards see our China Air Quality article.
5. Choose your China residence with air quality in mind
You’ll experience better air quality by living in areas in the outskirts of cities, especially where you are surrounded by a lot of vegetation. As mentioned earlier, vegetation is a natural air cleanser.
If you live in the city, avoid getting an apartment too close to congested roads.
Wherever you choose to live, your house should be well sealed to keep out pollutants.
You should also have air filtration systems in each room.
Before buying air purifiers, get the air quality in your house tested as this will help you to identify how many you need.
6. Fight the effects of China smog with healthy food
Various studies have shown that certain foods, especially fruits and vegetables that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities will strengthen your immune system and help you fend off China smog related complications.
Foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids, green leafy vegetables and citrus fruits that are rich in vitamin C and anti-oxidants, as well as herbs such as ginger and mint, should make it into your diet regularly.
7. Use medication
If you have been diagnosed with asthma, you probably use controller medication or a bronchodilator inhaler, or both.
You need to take your medication as prescribed by your doctor and have your inhaler on you at all times in case you experience shortness of breath.
When you are regular with your treatments, your sensitivity to triggers will lessen.
Dr. Harriet Leyland has lived in China and worked as a doctor for International SOS in Beijing.
She has years of experience advising expats and locals in China on how to cope with air pollution- out and indoors. She has recently started to collect her research and comment on many misconceptions about China smog in her blog: www.thesmogblog.org.
She hopes this information will be used to further understanding, and improve you and your loved ones’ health and well-being whilst in China and other countries that experience high levels of pollution.
Cambridge Mask’s N99 rated respirators use military filtration technology to filter out over 99% of particulate pollution as small as PM0.3. Its carbon filter is also treated with silver, killing over 99.6% of bacteria and viruses.
They manufacture adult and children pollution masks in 5 sizes, and 12 fashion-friendly patterns. Cambridge Mask writes a biweekly blog about keeping healthy in polluted areas.
Shanghai Health and Safety Front Page
Other solutions for combatting air pollution