Shanghai Smog

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.

Winter Brings Smog to Shanghai

Late-autumn through winter is the worst time of year for smog in Shanghai, as it is generally for the rest of China.

In late October 2017 the PM 2.5 density in Shanghai exceeded 160 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3), corresponding to a reading of 217 on both the US and China air quality index (AQI). 

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.

Shanghai Air Quality Data for 2017

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 average annual concentration of fine particulate matter, also known as PM2.5, 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 annual average density of the other main air pollutants in Shanghai was a mixed bag in 2017:

Shanghai Smog - No Longer a Public Concern?

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.

Additional Shanghai Air Pollution Data for 2017

Some other rare data published in the Chinese press referring to Shanghai air quality in 2017 included:

New Air Quality targets for Shanghai

Shanghai’s average annual 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.

New Initiatives

Other recent initiatives related to Shanghai Smog include:

  • Smoking ban: In March 2017 Shanghai instated a ban on smoking in all public indoor venues as well as certain outdoor public locations.
    Testing carried out by researchers from a local Shanghai University (Fudan) found that comparing the indoor air quality in several local hotels, bars, restaurants, office buildings, and other public venues before and after the ban showed an average reduction of 44% in PM2.5 concentrations from 115µg/m3 to 64µg/m3. 
  • From July 1, 2017 all heavy-duty diesel trucks were required to meet the China national “V emission standard”.  This is important as emissions from vehicles cause about 30% of PM2.5 pollution in Shanghai.
  • In October, several gas stations in Shanghai started offering a mixture of biodiesel for cars to help reduce gas emissions. 
  • In June 2017 Shanghai launched a 3-day, 72-hour air quality forecast, increased from the previous 48-hour forecast. 
  • In May Shanghai Party Secretary Han Zheng (who was recently promoted to the Standing Committee of the Politburo in Beijing) announced in his report to the 11th Congress of the Party’s Shanghai Committee “We will enforce the strictest environmental and energy efficiency standards...Controlling the density of PM2.5 particles and ozone in the air and improving water quality are core in terms of environmental protection and ecological restoration…We will cooperate with other cities in the Yangtze River Delta to prevent air pollution so that citizens can see bluer skies and breathe cleaner air...”
  • In March the Shanghai Greenery and Public Sanitation Bureau announced that Shanghai will build at least 1,200 hectares of new green space in 2017 to help suck up air pollutants, including twenty new parks and riverside green space along the Huangpu River and the Hongqiao commercial area.
  • Charity events have been organized to raise funds for air purifiers to be installed in Shanghai public kindergartens and schools.

The Bad News

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 air quality standard for average per annum density of no more 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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