Beijing is quite notorious for its bad air quality. The smog is especially frequent and thick in winter, when more coal burning and stagnant weather patterns contribute to the accumulation of particles over the city. During this time the levels of unhealthy PM 2.5 particles can exceed many times the limits deemed safe by the WHO.
The safe level for PM 2.5 is 25. But just on January 16th of this year, the air pollution levels in Beijing topped 600 , which looks like dense fog and smells like something industrial is burning. Around the same time last year, the unofficial levels even hit over 800, well beyond the official index with the highest category called Hazardous for levels of 300-500!
So how to you cope with the smog when living in Beijing?
Wear a face mask outside
Depending on the type of face mask you wear, you may look like Darth Vader or on life support, or, at a minimum, any nice outfit is destroyed. But at least a good mask protects your lungs against the invasion of the superfine particles.
Just know that simple cotton or surgical masks don’t do much when it comes to the fine PM 2.5 particles. You can find many reviews of face masks online, for example at myHealthBeijing (check also the sidebar there for many related links).
When you buy a mask, make sure that is provides a good fit for your face and seals well around your nose. All air should come in through the filter, not through some opening between your skin and the mask. You also want to make sure to buy your mask at a reputable source because allegedly many of the 3M masks sold for cheap are fake.
My mask is not an expensive high tech monstrosity but a rather simple one. It consists of a washable shell with a filter insert. The filter insert has to be replaced after a certain number of hours of use. Looking at all available data, I figured even if it does not filter out 99% or whatever of all particles, it still makes a significant improvement.
So wearing a face mask can be effective in protecting you from air pollution. While you may think of it as unsightly, everyone here is used to it, so no one cares. But it can also be a bit uncomfortable. It can get a little warm and humid under the mask, which my skin doesn’t like that much. And wearing sunglasses with the mask can cause the glasses to fog up. But that’s a small price to pay for better health.
Use an air filter at home
On smoggy days I try not to open the windows. But the polluted air still comes inside. To keep the air inside your home clean you will have to invest in an air filter.
There are many different and often expensive models of air filters. The most common ones were review here. A cheaper and still effective option was recently featured by CityWeekend magazine. It is a simple construction of a ventilator with a HEPA filter. The team who developed this did great research, and I think the numbers speak for the product (check out their Smart Air website to learn more). You can also actually see the filter collecting dark particle matter over time. The only disadvantage is that it is a bit noisy. But the price is hard to beat.
Use apps to stay informed
Usually a look outside will tell you how good or bad the air quality is. At least when you live on a higher floor and can see a bit into the distance. I got pretty good at judging the level of pollution by how clearly I can see some buildings a block or two away (if I can see them at all).
But you don’t have to rely on your own judgment. The US embassy analyzes air samples taken at the embassy compound in Chaoyang and publishes hourly updates. Many expats have an app on their smart phone to track that data (available for iphone and Android). There is also a website that shows a clickable map with more sampling locations all over the city and some historical data.
Coping – Yes, Getting used to – No
You can see that there are some options to cope with the Beijing smog and protect your health. It still doesn’t make it fun to experience those days. It is not only the potential impact on your body. The grey smoggy days can affect your mood, too. On the upside, at least for me, I much more appreciate clean air now. Before moving to Beijing, I took blue skies and clean air for granted. Now on a clear day, I want to go and spend time outside.
How are you coping with the air pollution in Beijing? Please share your strategies in the comments.