Sunday, January 20, 2013

In Beijing, the air is chewable

Wearing my 3-M special mask at the Bridge Cafe in northwest Beijing
For the first year and a half we have been here in Beijing, Cindy has monitored the air quality daily. It was nearly always up over 100 micrograms of small particulates (2.5 microns) per cubic meter, which is considered unhealthy. Often it is like today, over 200. And last week it was up over 300, 400, 500...up to 700. You could practically chew it.

By comparison, on Saturday in New York City, the same measure was 19,  Edward Wong reported in the New York Times.

These small particulates are the most dangerous because your lungs can't filter them out. They accumulate. 

Today's reading, Jan. 21. You can see
the current level
 by clicking here.  
I never paid any attention to it. Sure, lots of days it was depressing to see a thick haze everywhere. Sometimes you could taste the air. You could smell the coal and sulfur. But it didn't really affect my ability to swim or run or do my job. 

Wearing normal surgical masks does nothing to stop these particulates. You have to wear a mask designed especially to block them. Cindy bought a box of 20, at $3 apiece, and we never wore them. 

Until last week.

I've been fighting a chest cold. First off, until I came to Beijing, I hadn't had a chest cold in 30 years, since I quit smoking. 

Last week I started wearing a mask outdoors. That made a big difference. According to the experts, if you stay indoors you can escape most of the pollution. Well, they're wrong.

Last night I started coughing a lot. I put on the mask, the cough disappeared. Totally. That validates the notion that the 2.5 micron stuff can affect you badly on a daily basis. Not to speak of the long-term effects. 

I can remember a similar smell of coal and sulfur from the steel plants in the Flats many mornings when I would arrive for classes at St. Ignatius on W. 30th St. in Cleveland. Today, of course, the steel plants are closed. Pittsburgh had similar pollution in its heyday. The thick London fog described so vividly in Dickens's Christmas Carol is the same stuff. 

The column on the right has the main break points for air quality. This Beijing air quality index monitor, located at the U.S. embassy, has been a huge diplomatic issue. The Chinese government has denied the reliability of the readings and has pressured the U.S. to stop publishing the information. 

Various  countries monitor air pollution different ways, some combining a number of different factors to come up with a score. 

What I have been unable to find is something that would compare, say, Mexico City, which is notorious for its air pollution, to Beijing using this 2.5-micron index. 

It's because the measurements are complex and defy a simple explanation. I want a simple score comparing cities, but the American Lung Association explanation can't give me that.  

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:49 AM

    I hear you. Those tiny particles are probably the worst because they infiltrate most masks and get into buildings - then your lungs, where they stay. I haven't heard of any pollution index like the one you mention, but I'l check around. I work with some companies that send reps to China regularly and they often get colds there.
    BTW: how does a civvy comment on this and ID hisownself?