Air Pollution Solutions:
Protecting Yourself from the Dangers of Air Pollution in China

Air pollution solutions are critical for healthy living in China.

Many studies around the world and in China warn us of the serious effects of air pollution. Although we have seen significant reductions in air pollution in China in the last few years these studies remind us that it is still a danger, even at current levels.

Fortunately, there are many air pollution solutions available in China which we take a look at below.

Improving Air Quality in Shanghai

In 2018 Shanghai’s annual average PM2.5 concentration was 36 ug/m3, approximately a 42% reduction from 2013’s average of 62 ug/m3.

Quite an accomplishment, but still higher than China’s own healthy guideline of 35 ug/m3, and far above the World Health Organization (WHO) standard of 10 ug/m3.

As mentioned in our Shanghai smog article, the local Shanghai government has set the goal of reducing air pollution to WHO standards by 2040. That, however, is a long time to wait. 

Impacts of Air Pollution on Life Expectancy

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.

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). 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 annual average PM2.5 density range of 36 to 62 ug/m3 over the last few years certainly will take its toll. 

A report in The Lancet in October 2017 estimated 6.5 million premature deaths in 2015 were caused by air pollution, about 12% of all deaths that year, with China accounting for a large portion. 

In 2016 the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that more than 1 million people died prematurely due to outdoor air pollution in China in 2012, ranking the highest in the world. 

In our China air pollution study article we discussed one recent study that showed how air pollution has impacted life expectancy in North China. Due to the use of coal-fired centralized heating systems life expectancy of residents to the North of the Huai River is more than 3 years lower than residents in the South.

A study by Nanjing University estimated that almost one third of deaths in 74 cities in China in 2013 had some connection to PM2.5 pollution

Direct Health Effects of Air Pollution

In late 2016 the first real-time medical study to show an influence of air pollution on pulmonary vascular function (the blood vessels along the route between the heart and lungs) was released. The scientists' medical experiments showed that exposure to air pollution impairs the function of blood vessels in the lungs.

Interestingly, this study also showed that doing exercise when exposed to air pollution was much more harmful than being at rest during exposure, indicating we should reduce outdoor exercise on poor air quality days.

That, however, is not an excuse to completely give up fitness in Shanghai. Another study conducted in Denmark concluded that data "may imply" that health damage caused by short-term exposure to air pollution during exercise does not negate the long-term benefits of physical activity.

Other recent research conducted in the UK has shown that air pollution particles not only affect heart and lungs, but can also find their way in to the brain, thereby being a potential cause of Alzheimers and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Another study found that hypertension increased significantly with higher exposure to PM2.5 pollution.

Diabetes has also been linked to air pollution recently. A US study found even low levels of air pollution raised the chance of developing diabetes, probably by reducing the body's ability to produce insulin.

Effects of Air Pollution on Children and Maternity

Children are more prone to the harmful 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.

Of course, you first need to be able to have children before worrying about their health.

A study done by the University of Boston in 2016 found that women who lived within 199 meters of a major roadway were 11 per cent more likely to experience fertility issues due to the air pollution from traffic fumes.

China Studies Showing Health Effects of Air Pollution

Many studies carried out in China on the effects of air pollution have also painted a bleak picture.

During international climate talks in 2013 delegates representing China stressed that air pollution was severely affecting the mental and physical health of the Chinese people.

A 2016 study in China found that there was a 20% increase in coronary artery calcium deposits for every 5 µg/m³ of higher exposure to PM2.5 density. 

In 2017 a study conducted in South China showed that Ozone pollution, China's second most serious air pollutant after PM2.5 fine particulate matter, affects cardiovascular health and not just respiratory health as previously known.

A study on children in Shanghai concluded that exposure to PM2.5 vastly increased the risk of developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

And recent analysis of of test scores from the Family Panel Studies survey in China by academics at the Beijing Normal University and the Yale School of Public Health concluded that long-term exposure to air pollution also lowers human intelligence.

Lung Cancer in China Rising

One recent report in China revealed that lung-cancer rates were rising rapidly.

Although China is well known for its large population of smokers, the specific type of lung cancer that was rising the fastest is not related to smoking.

Chinese cancer experts suspect this type of lung cancer is due to air pollution. 

Short-term Exposure to Air Pollution

Many of the above mentioned studies have looked at data related to long-term exposure to air pollution, and certainly should be taken seriously by expats who live in China for several years.

Now, however, we also have a study done in our own back yard revealing the adverse effects of short-term exposure to particulate matter (PM) air pollution. 

Students from Shanghai’s Fudan University were divided into two groups. One group had air purifiers placed in their rooms which reduced their average exposure to PM2.5 pollution over a 9 day period to 24.3 μg/m3. Another group also had air purifiers installed, but with the filters removed and, therefore, their exposure was closer to Shanghai’s outdoor air pollution density during the study period at 53.1 μg/m3.

Tests on the students showed that those exposed to the higher density of PM2.5 pollution had higher levels of stress hormones and altered metabolism. The report concluded: “We found significantly higher blood pressure, hormones, insulin resistance, and biomarkers of oxidative stress and inflammation among individuals exposed to higher PMs with aerodynamic diameters ≤2.5 μm.”

The exposure level of the non-filtered air group at 53.1 ug/m3 (equivalent to 144 on the US Air quality Index) is not far above Shanghai’s yearly average, and lower than what we are normally exposed to during the winter months.

And Chinese researchers have statistically proven that people become less happy as the concentration of PM2.5 outdoors increases. (Not sure we needed a study to prove this, but all the better.)

Indoor Vs. Outdoor Air Quality

Indoor air pollution is even more difficult to notice with the naked eye. Considering we spend up to 80% of our time each day inside our home or office, it is critical to ensure your indoor environment is healthy.

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 pollution, indoor air can contain toxic pollutants known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). So we must be sure to use air pollution solutions that remove all pollutants from indoor air and not just PM2.5.

Invisible Air Pollution

We can quite easily see the smog with our eyes when the aqi surpasses 200 outside. But even when we don't notice the smog it can still be harmful to our health.

The picture below shows blue sky in Shanghai when the PM2.5 real-time reading was at 60 ug/m3, equivalent to 81 on the China Air Quality Index (AQI) or 153 on the US AQI.

Shanghai Smog With Blue Sky
Shanghai AQI NumberBlue Sky in Shanghai: PM2.5 at 60ug/m3

Air Pollution Solutions

The good news is that air pollution solutions are easily accessible in China and relatively inexpensive compared to the costs of not protecting yourself.

Below we introduce some products to help protect yourself from air pollution in China and some tips for keeping your indoor air clean.

Air Pollution Solutions

Air Purifiers

The study done at Shanghai's Fudan University made use of common portable air purifiers that are widely available in China and manufactured by many different brands.

The leading researcher stated that the study found that "indoor air purifiers are useful for protecting our health."

This backed up another study by some of the same researchers which showed that using air purifiers over just a 48-hour period showed cardiopulmonary benefits.

Air purifiers can protect us from PM2.5 and even smaller particulate matter as long as they have a HEPA filter.

Air purifiers can also reduce volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and thereby ground-level ozone (O3), when they include activated carbon filters.

Having an air purifier in your bedroom to keep the air clean at night is especially beneficial as sleeping should take up approximately 30% of our time.

For more details on what to look for when purchasing an air purifier in China as well as a list of suppliers please see our top rated air purifiers article.

Pollution Face Masks

There have been several studies done which have proved the benefits of wearing pollution face masks when outdoors on smoggy days.

Pollution masks should meet N95 or N99 grade (or the equivalent European standard) in order to block particulate matter (PM) air pollution. The cloth masks worn by many people in Northern China do not meet this standard so are not an effective air pollution solution.

Some face masks on the market also include a carbon filter to help protect you from ozone pollution; especially important when on or near roadways as much of the ground-level ozone is created by chemical reactions produced between motor vehicle exhaust and sunlight.

Standard pollution masks are often not suited for children as they can not fit snugly enough to block polluted air entering the nose and mouth. Fortunately several manufacturers provide masks specially designed for children.

For more details about air pollution masks please see our N95 mask article.

Indoor Air Pollution Solutions

Pollution particles will stick to your skin and clothes, so when you come inside after a smoggy day in China take a shower and wash your outer clothing.

Dry cleaning should be immediately taken out of plastic wrappings and aired on the balcony to remove toxins.

Reduce the amount of plastics and chemical cleaning products in your home as they can emit Phthalates into the air which have been shown to have links to various ailments. 

Install shower filters to reduce the off-gassing of chlorine when taking a warm shower. 

Air conditioners and their filters inside should be cleaned regularly and set on inner circulation when the outdoor air is poor.

Air purifying plants placed around your home can help to suck up some PM2.5 and other pollution particles. 

An electronic pollution monitor to continuously check your indoor air quality in China will keep you alert. During one heavy pollution day in November 2017 the AQI reading on my air pollution monitor plummeted from 250 to under 60 within 20 minutes of closing the windows and turning on my air purifiers.

Shanghai AQI 255
Shanghai Indoor Air Quality

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. 

Be sure, however, to ensure you have good ventilation when you use gas for cooking or heating inside!

Dietary Air Pollution Solutions

A study conducted by a team of researchers from the Harvard school of Public health, Hong Kong's City University and other institutions indicated that a four-week daily B vitamin supplement program limited the negative health effects of exposure to PM2.5 pollution.

A study conducted in Qidong near Shanghai in 2011/2012 showed that a daily dose of broccoli sprout beverage containing sulforaphane, a bioactive component derived from broccoli, increases the rate of detoxication of air pollutants. This has been backed up by other studies showing broccoli consumption brought benefits to those exposed to diesel exhaust particles, as well as smokers.

Animal liver, a common Chinese dish, is rich in B vitamins. Chinese congee and steamed buns also contain many vitamin B rich ingredients such as pearl barley, buckwheat, red rice, oats, millet, black glutinous rice and brown rice, and kidney and mung beans.

Omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids found in oily fish such as Salmon and Mackerel have been shown to reduce the impact of particulate matter (PM) on our health. Other powerful antioxidants such as vitamins C and E found in fruits and vegetables are also helpful.

Some Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) products claim to be air pollution solutions, but many respected TCM doctors say consumers should not trust such claims. TCM dietary theory, however, has benefits which can build up your health to indirectly fight air pollution.

Another flaky idea sees some entrepreneurs selling canned air in China from places such as the UK and Canada. 

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