When living in Shanghai daily air pollution is unfortunately a reality of life. One we've learned to live with because as I've often told myself and people if they ask how I can live here: No one forces us to be here and opposite most of our fellow Chinese inhabitants we can leave whenever we want to. But we like it here. And we do our best to beat the pollution.
Since I arrived in Shanghai during Golden Week (Chinese October Holiday) in 2012 the pollution discussion has increased rapidly and my concern with pollution with it. I now live with a high-quality air purifier in my home, a mask in my bag and an air quality app on my phone which I check every morning to see if it's a good day for a run (and just because I want to know what my health is being exposed to today).
I'm super happy that we've invested in our Blue Air air purifier. It's running in our bedroom and makes sure we at least have clean air 7-10 hours in a day. Below photos shows you the approximate size of it as well as the filer inside during a filter-change (needless to say: left = old filter, right = new filter Y-U-K). Blue Air is super expenny - around RMB 3500-4000 with an extra air filter but you can find cheaper models to. I often hear about DIY filter kits which should be available for around RMB 200-400 - try Smart Air.
Before Chinese New Year I met up with Tyson, the author of Combustionshanghai - a blog about science, chemistry, environmental science, climate change, pollution, heath, and AQI updates in Shanghai. He is also a chemistry teacher here in Shanghai and shares lots of useful information about pollution numbers, fighters and the general discussion. As Tyson says: "We all have to breathe". If you want to read more about pollution in general, his blog is a great one to visit. Find it here.
Tyson's concern with the Shanghai pollution started 2 years ago and today he wears his mask whenever the AQI is above 150. It was after my conversation with him I got convinced about taking my mask with me when I'm out & about and actually use it once in a while. Ok, I'm super bad but working on it.
My current mask is from the brand 3M - I got a sample package from work after an event and didn't know much about the brand - for me mask brands is a bit of a jungle...and a bit uninteresting. So I was pretty happy to hear from Tyson that M3 is a very good brand. For him mask brands are not that uninteresting and he often follows mask tests online. 3M always scores very high.
My mask is printed with "N95" which does not ring any bell to me but Tyson explained that this means my mask has a 95% efficiency of catching the pollution particles. I never thought masks were really that efficient!
Like most other brands you can find both 3M re-useable and 3M one-time-use masks. Buy them on taobao, jd.com or find them in several of the small convenience stores around Shanghai. If you feel awkward wearing them (oh yes! me me) try wearing a big scarf which can cover a little bit.
What's behind the AQI (Air Quality Index)?
So now, most of us expats in Shanghai knows how to read the AQI (Air Quality Index) because that's why it's made: so normal people like me can compare the levels of pollution from day to day and between cities. But I was curious about what those numbers really mean and Tyson was kind enough to explain it to me... 5 times until I got it haha.
On the left screenshot from my Air Quality App above, the Index shows that on March 18th the air pollution was 115 on the index and categorized as "Unhealthy For Sensitive Groups". This number on the index is based on the numbers below it: "PM 2.5: 41.0ug/m3".
PM 2.5 refers to the tiny particles in the air that are currently being measured - also called the "Fine Particles".
The "Fine Particles" are 2.5 microns in width (microns ma? Oh a micron is one thousand of a millimeter...hmmm. Oh for our brains to understand, compare with a human hair which on average is 70 microns in width. PM 2.5 = TINY).
41.0ug/m3 means that on this day March 18th, for every cubic meter of space/air there was 41 micrograms (one million of a gram) of pollution particles with the width of 2.5 microns or bigger in the Shanghai air.
The European Union has developed health based standards and objectives for air quality standards and for those fine particles (the PM 2.5) the standard for European countries is 25 micrograms/m3. This is quite eye-opening as we in Shanghai very very seldom will experience a day just being close to this standard.
So on my mom's birthday March 10th this year the air pollution in Shanghai was 161 on the AQI or around 6.5 x more than the standard in Europe... And living here you know that this is not at all as worse as it gets...
In December I downloaded a new app for runners in China. It let you set an alarm early enough for a morning run AND a later alarm as well. If the air pollution is bad only the late alarm will ring and you get to sleep in (why get up early just to realize it's too polluted to run..) In 2 months I wasn't woken up once by the early alarm and yes my running shape is sh***, thanks China! (Psst if you are interested, find the app in itunes store here).
So, what is air pollution?
But what exactly is air pollution, fine particles and smog? In general it's generated from factories (coal is a big one), cars/trucks and burning (cooking, gas, fuel).
WHO defines it as:
Because I wanted to learn more, I just watched the eye-opening and discussed documentary "Under the Dome - Investigating China's smog" about pollution in China. It's made by the Chinese reporter Chai Jing and was banned in China just 1 week after publication.. It is extremely powerful if you live here or have anything to do with China - click on the youtube link below and watch it with English subtitles (remember to use VPN).
I'm wondering if my blog will be banned in China after posting the link to the youtube video but then again, though I loooove China and Shanghai I'm getting quite concerned with living here so we might be looking for cleaner oceans soon anyway... Oh and we can always return after China fixed their problems. That's the positive side of Chai Jing's documentary: the solutions she put forth and prove possible - for example when she compare China's current situation to other nations dirty industrialization processes.
What can we do
Some of my own personal do's & dont's as well as some tips from Tyson:
- Get a mask - especially for times when you are taking a walk after lunch or biking to the gym - if the pollution is bad why do something good for your body that damage your lungs if you can prevent this damage?
- Get an air cleaner (or 2) for your home - especially bedroom is super important
- Do not open the windows on polluted day! According to Tyson the air inside is general 40% better than outside on polluted days
- Do open the windows on clear days - just like we would do at home every morning to let out that old inside air and welcome a new fresh day!
- Don't go running or biking or playing around outside on polluted days. When you do physical activities you breath around 9 x more than normally. If you do, wear a mask
Below you see Shanghai on a good and a bad day. The good day was the day after Chinese New Year - compare this day to December 25th in the Western World where everything is closed and people rest and eat in their homes with their families. Less cars, less trucks, less factories, less smog. This day was absolutely amazing in Shanghai and it really shows how human-made the pollution is. The photo on the right is why this place is not a sustainable home for me - way too many of those days and after knowing more about pollution I personally can't ignore it in the long run.