Although improving, Shanghai smog is still a major health concern expats should be aware of!
This article looks at the improving Shanghai air quality situation in 2017, but also warns that we should not become complacent with this serious health hazard.
Late-autumn through winter is the worst time of year for smog in Shanghai, as it is generally for the rest of China.
Early November saw the Shanghai aqi soar even higher to 226 with a PM2.5 concentration of 175.5 μg/m3. This is more than 7 times the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended maximum average level of 25 ug/m3 for a 24-hour period.
Shanghai’s poor air quality during the winter is partly due to a change in the prevailing winds at this time of year.
According to the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau approximately 20% of Shanghai smog is caused by pollution blown in from outside of Shanghai. Most of this effect is concentrated during the winter months when wind from the North dominates in Shanghai rather than from the South-East off the ocean as it does for most of the summer.
As most China expats know, the air quality in North China has been much worse than Shanghai's for many years. So when Beijing catches a cold, Shanghai will certainly sneeze.
Despite the occasional serious Shanghai smog in the summer and winter of 2017, the annual average air pollution reading for the year still came in at its lowest level in the 5 years since the government started making such figures public.
The annual average concentration of fine particulate matter, also known as PM2.5, which often acts as the proxy for air pollution in Shanghai, came in at 39 µg/m3 for 2017, a reduction of 13.3% from 2016.
Based on China AQI index labels, Shanghai enjoyed good or better air quality, with the AQI at or under 100, for 75.3% of days in 2017.
This was about the same if not slightly worse than 2016’s reported figure of 75.4% of days with good or excellent air quality.
The statistics for annual average density of the other main air pollutants in Shanghai were a mixed bag in 2017:
In 2016 Shanghai smog was one of the hottest topics covered in the local press. Many articles compared the average PM2.5 density on a monthly and quarterly basis to those of the same period in 2015, showing significant improvements.
In 2017, however, few reports on Shanghai smog readings were published in the local press. Is this because we are being kept in the dark?
Unlikely! We are free to check any number of China apps that give us real-time hourly and average daily readings of Shanghai PM2.5 and AQI. But many of us have stopped checking these apps regularly as the air quality has improved.
One rare news item related to air quality in 2017 did catch the attention of many Shanghai expats.
This story was covered in the western press and local expat media with sensationalist headlines such as ‘Living in Shanghai Takes Nearly 6 Years Off Your Life’, and ‘Living in China Takes 3½ Years Off Your Life’.
These headlines focused on the negative side of a recent China air pollution study which actually revealed some very positive developments in China’s struggle to improve air quality.
Some other rare data published in the Chinese press referring to Shanghai air quality in 2017 included:
Shanghai’s annual average PM2.5 density was 45 ug/m3 in 2016. This number actually already bettered Shanghai government's official target of reducing average PM2.5 density to no more than 48 ug/m3 by 2017.
This target, which meant reducing PM2.5 density in Shanghai by 20% from the 2012 base year, was laid down in the central government's 'Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (2013-17)' and the local government's 'Shanghai Clean Air Action Plan (2013-17)’.
Although Shanghai beat this 2017 target ahead of time in 2016, the local government did not rest on its laurels.
In January 2017 the Shanghai government announced a new target for average annual PM2.5 density to be reduced to 42 ug/m3 by 2020. Obviously, this new goal was not very ambitious as it was already comfortably passed by the end of 2017.
A bolder target was issued in September 2017 when the city authorities announced a new master plan calling for the annual average density of PM2.5 to fall to about 20 ug/m3 by 2040.
Other initiatives in 2017 related to Shanghai Smog include:
While we should acknowledge and celebrate the great improvements in air quality in Shanghai since 2012, we should also be aware the current figures still do not meet the standards for healthy air enacted by any of the WHO, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or China’s own Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) (since rebranded as the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE)).
The WHO considers the average annual PM2.5 concentration should not exceed 10 ug/m3. So Shanghai’s reading in 2017 was still almost four times this maximum healthy density.
The more relaxed China ambient air quality standard calling for the annual average PM2.5 concentration to be no higher than 35 ug/m3 is also not yet being met in Shanghai.
Note also that China’s AQI for readings below 250 is more relaxed than the US air quality index.
A day with an average PM2.5 concentration of up to 75 ug/m3 is considered ‘good’ in China, whereas anything above 55.5 ug/m3 is classified as ‘Unhealthy' for everyone by the US AQI.
So the figures for ‘good' or 'excellent’ air quality days in Shanghai in 2017 mentioned above would not be so rosy based on the US AQI.
New studies are being published on a regular basis in both China and overseas emphasizing the dangers of air pollution even at the lower levels we now ‘enjoy’ in Shanghai.
The locally tested PM2.5 level of 64 ug/m3 in Shanghai indoor public venues is also a warning we should all take measures to ensure our indoor air is regularly filtered.
Fortunately, many solutions to protect our health from Shanghai smog are becoming cheaper and more accessible here. We look at these solutions in our air pollution solutions article.
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