How to Breathe Easier in China’s Most Polluted Cities

How to Breathe Easier in China’s Most Polluted Cities
Jan 06, 2011 By Andrea Scarlatelli ,

There is no denying that the air quality in China is bad. Smog, hazy and discolored air, odd smells – all signs of heavy pollution – are a common, if not daily, occurrence in many parts of China. And in major cities, the situation gets even worse. In fact, sixteen of the world’s most polluted cities are in China, according to a recent World Bank research report. Air quality is often cited as the issue by which expats are most bothered. 

Before discussing the issue of pollution, however, it is important to differentiate between the two forms of pollutants found in the atmosphere. PM10, which includes things such as dust and construction run off, is quickly rejected by the body through blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. This is the type of pollution that can be avoided through the use of a face mask. PM2.5, on the other hand, comes from things like factories and engines, and enters the bloodstream when inhaled. It cannot be eliminated by any means, and is the culprit behind chronic bronchitis, allergies, shortness of breath, tightness of the chest, and other respiratory problems, as reported in City Weekend magazine. This kind of pollution can cause long-term damage to the lungs and other organs, and should be avoided at all costs.

So just how bad is the air here? The United States Food & Drug Administration officially declares 150,000 ppm (parts per million of pollutants) to be the maximum “safe” level for air quality. According to Dave Young, a consultant at IQ Air, Shanghai consistently registers approximately 230,000 ppm. And while the Chinese government does not release official numbers on how many PM2.5 particles are in the air, Shanghai averages 200 microns per cubic meter and Beijing averages 230. In November of 2010, Beijing reached an all-time high of 500 microns per cubic meter – the absolute highest the scale measures.To put this into perspective, City Weekend reports that the pollution level in Los Angeles, California is around 40 microns, and the European Union’s acceptable limit is 20 microns per cubic meter.
Diagnoses of asthma, which is often caused or aggravated by PM2.5, are five times what they were just twenty years ago in cities like Shanghai and Beijing.

When expats arrive in this country, some find that they have initial discomfort in the chest area. This often goes away after some time, but for many people the symptoms worsen. Shortness of breath, tightening of the chest, frequent coughing, weakness or wheezing after exercise, and fatigue are all signs of asthma. If you experience these symptoms, as many people due during their duration of stay in China, you should see a doctor immediately to get tested. This is especially important for young children, as asthma is a serious condition that needs constant maintenance. Even if you’ve never had asthma before, the high rate of PM2.5 pollutants in China’s air can result in the onset of the disease.

There are things you can do to protect yourself and your family against pollution. When the air is visibly hazy and smoggy outside, stay indoors as much as possible. You can also keep an eye on the pollution levels in 113 cities throughout China by checking out the Shanghai Environment Monitoring Center (SEMC) online - but, shocker, the government has blocked it. So put that VPN to good use and keep yourself informed. While masks can help keep out PM10 particles, some websites such as sell RESPRO masks, which supposedly also block out PM2.5 particles. However, this has not been verified by any outside authority, so shell out the 279-399 RMB per mask at your own risk.

Air purifiers, which filter out everything from pollution to cigarette smoke, are perhaps the best way to at least make sure the air in your home is as pollutant free as possible. IQ Air ( offers a range of options for your home or office at various price points, although all tend towards the higher range. You can try getting one on the cheap at places like or, but make sure you do your research. Knock-offs abound in the air purifying market, and the last thing you want is a false sense of security when it comes to your health.

Related Links
Air Pollution in One Fifth of China's Cities is Very Severe
7 Things in China That Could Kill You
Shanghai’s November Air Quality Worst in 5 Years

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Keywords: China air quality China air pollution


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I am living in Beijing for almost 5 years... One year cannot breathing , I back my country , did all the tests, they found nothing ... Then back Beijing, it was normal breathing after 1 year, but I never go on the street here without a mask of protection ( medicinal mask from medicine shop, the blue one) . Other way I am not feel confortable. I have allergies all of the time on my troath, lungs also, I expectorate always green poins , but doctor said in my country it is not an infection, it is the imune system which pull them out , probably the response of polution of PM10 which the body rejected them by expectoration. But something good was happen here also, with all the polution and crowd, having a mask on your face, I didn't got any viral infection or flu in the lat 2-3 years.
I don't know why white peoples are so sensilble, look at Chinse, they don't care to use masks most of them , even when the polution is worse and thet are halthy, energy... I am wonder many times, how can they be so strong ? I think the answer it is because they eat different, they not cook long time their food and eat more vegetables , etc.. This make them feel more strong probably, but western food add a lot of oil and time of cooking which lose most of the important nutrients. In my opinion, Chinese peoples are stronger than others about health.
Recently I have lover problems, gallblader problems and kidneys problems founded in blood testes and CT , it is posible have something incommon with PM 2,5 polluant, but I don't know . It is true, I am feel more bad here than in my country. I am from Romania, and every time when back to Bucharest, I am wonder how clear is the air and I feel it too strong , it make me tired as is too clear for me who used to live in China many years ... Every time when change the climate and air, I get a cold after one wek at the destination. This is happen because the air composition is totaly different . And there my lungs always clear up and expectorating some dirty from inside. When I back China, this thing is stop , here no expectoration, only in the morning when open the windows a little. It is strange anyway , and bad ... I don't know where is no polution in China... Where to live to be healthy ...

Apr 29, 2012 19:33 Report Abuse