Spectacularly, internationally bad air

 Above: 350 at 9:30am; Below: 450 at 2:30pm.

Outside my place – a non-cloudy day with the air in the hazardous range. Above: 350 at 9:30am; Below: 450 at 2:30pm. Looks normal to me…

Beijing has such bad air it is now internationally renowned. Articles about last weekend’s horrific conditions sprung up all over the place. If you don’t live here, let me give you the low down: yes, it really was that bad. In October and November combined, we had 3 days in which the average reading was in the hazardous range. In the past two weeks we have had 6 days in the hazardous range, including one day in which the daily average was above 500 (outside the scale).


According to EPA standards, anything below 50 is considered healthy. Over 300 is hazardous. Last Saturday, the AQI (air quality index) in Beijing hit 755. That’s right, 2.5 times over the “hazardous line”. As several friends overseas posted on facebook:
“Thinking of my friends in Beijing. The air quality index reached 755 according to the US embassy. The American scale maxes out at 300, the Chinese scale maxes at 500. An index of 100 is said to be unhealthy, 300 is considered a health emergency in the US”


The US Embassy in Beijing has been reporting pollution levels hourly since 2008. The readings are taken by instruments on their building, and automatically uploaded to a twitter feed. Twitter is blocked in China so it wasn’t a big deal domestically – it was foreigners with VPNs looking at it. But as the air got worse and smartphones became the norm, apps were born and the figures were more widely reported.


In late 2010, the AQI went over 500 for the first time, something so unprecedently awful when the software was put together that the programmer listed the air quality label for over 500 as “crazy bad” – which then went live on twitter for several hours before being noticed and changed. Now, when it goes over 500 the label is “beyond index”.  (Here are two good articles written at the time). Funny now how crazy that seemed at the time… the AQI has gone over 500 several times since, but 750+ is still ridiculous even by our frog-in-boiling-water standards.

I wrote the following in an email to my family:

I think you’re all aware already that Beijing is slowly (not so slowly?) poisoning its residents. Yes, it really is as bad as online news and facebook are saying. Probably worse than you can believe. There has been no wind in the past few days so the natural bowl shape surrounding the desert plain that is Beijing has been slowly filling with all the pollutants always here. We’re simmering in our own filth, and it shows.


Yesterday afternoon the pollution layer was so thick that despite no cloud it seemed like dusk. The AQI (air quality index) was over 700 and kept climbing, hitting a record high of 755 at 8pm. (Unofficially, some say it went over 800 between the hourly updates available publicly). 


This makes the third day in a row where the daily average is in the hazardous range. I am currently VERY thankful for my wonderful air purifier! Yesterday I could smell (taste?) the difference between the air in my bedroom and the air in the living room. This is the first time I’ve ever been seriously afraid to go outside! And I certainly wasn’t the only one.


When the AQI stuck around 350 most of Sunday, it felt much more manageable. And when it went below 200 the next day (in the “unhealthy” range) everyone celebrated. Stockholm syndrome, anyone?


The unprecedently bad air prompted greater media attention than ever before – including in China. State run media covered the bad air quality, and the government has agreed to start reporting the PM2.5 levels. These smaller particles can be absorbed into the body, so they are more dangerous to human health. While the US Embassy figures measure 5 pollutants (including PM2.5), the Chinese government only releases figures for PM10 pollutants, which are larger and therefore less dangerous.
This difference in reporting can be amusing. Most of my smartphone carrying friends have AQI apps showing the real time pollution level as reported by the US Embassy. Some of them show both the US Embassy readings alongside the levels reported by the Chinese government. Guess which one is aways lower? Mine is in Chinese, but uses the levels reported by the US Embassy.


Talking to a taxi driver today was interesting. He said that the snow had made the air better (this is true – today is 150-200, yesterday averaged about 250; less dramatic than a rainstorm but better than nothing).  So I mentioned last weekend’s awful pollution; to which the driver said “it wasn’t that bad”. I was stunned! His reason? “I was driving all day, so it didn’t affect me. I’m in here with the air conditioning on.” To which I countered that the air inside the cab can’t be much different to the air outside, with the doors opening the whole time. I felt a bit dumb when he responded: “We all comfort ourselves however we can”. We talked about the huge volume of face masks bought (half a million in 2 days, apparently). He asked if I had bought one and when I said “no” he called me li hai (“hardcore” would be a rough translation).
If you are interested in reading more about the horror air, here are three good articles I’ve read:

7 thoughts on “Spectacularly, internationally bad air

  1. Yeah, it’s bad here too, although being coastal, not as bad, we can get good breezes It’s insane when you read the levels and it says “unhealthy” you think “yay!”…. only in China. Today was quite nice, we have had some horrific days though. One day when it was well over 500 by US Standards one of my friends said. “I was hoping that some Ayi at the embassy had opened and window and shaken a rug out…” If only that were true.

    Like ur driver said, we all tell ourselves what we need to to cope.

    When we were first here I didn’t notice it as much and seeing as I haven’t left the continent for 16months, I’m probably going to notice it when we come back, something we have to make a call on, about how long we’re here. We’ve signed for another 2 years, we’re thinking of south America next for 2-4 years then maybe back here… give the bodies a break!

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