Air Pollution: China’s Big Challenge

I spent two weeks of my vacation this summer in Beijing, the capital city of China.  Beijing has been the political, economic, and cultural center of China since the Yuan Dynasty – over 800 years. It is a bustling city, centuries old on one hand and very modern on the other.  Every year, millions of visitors flock to see this city, making it one of the most visited in the world.

I have been to Beijing before, and I have visited most of its renowned historical sites such as the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Ming Tombs, and Tiananmen Square.  On this trip I wanted to explore some less famous places.  Not only are these places interesting but, because they are less popular, they often have shorter lines to get in.  However, Beijing’s brutal weather changed my plans.  I am not speaking of storms, or of heat waves, but of smog and haze.  I had heard of the smog issue on the news, but I had no idea how bad the city’s pollution was until I experienced it firsthand.

To most people, haze is particulate matter that can arise from industry (smoke, fumes) or natural sources (pine forests, for example), and smog is the end product of hydrocarbon/NOx(nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide) in sunlight.  Beijing’s air is a combination of all of these pollutants, plus dust.  For a long time air pollution from power plants, diesel engines, and dust from the Gobi Desert have all been very serious problems for Beijing.  Additionally, high ozone days contribute to this problem.

I started to cough as soon as I left the airport and sat in a taxi, not knowing that the culprit was the smog until my severe non-stop coughing continued and I had to seek medical help.  After I told the doctor that I was a tourist, he knew exactly what the cause was. “It is all about the air,” he told me, and handed me prescriptions for five different medicines. I had planned to stay in Beijing for two weeks, but I was not sure I would get better unless I found an escape from this environment.

My bad experience with the capital city’s air pollution prompted me to do a little studying.  This pollution in the air is referred to as “Particulate Matter,” or simply PM.  There are two kinds of particulate pollution: fine particles and inhalable coarse particles.  Fine particles are called PM2.5, as they are less than 2.5 microns in diameter.  Coarse particles are called PM10 – particles larger than 2.5 microns, but smaller than 10.  As a frame of reference, 10 microns is less than the width of a single human hair.  Since PM2.5 particles are much smaller than inhalable coarse particles (PM10), their effect on human health is more severe.  PM2.5 can also reach much deeper into the human lung and cause significant health problems, giving it the nickname “the invisible killer.”

Meanwhile, I checked Beijing’s Air Quality Index.  An Index reading below 50 indicates excellent air quality; 50-100 indicates healthy air, and readings above 100 mean polluted air.  A reading of over 200 indicates very unhealthy air quality, and a reading beyond 300 signals an air quality level that poses a serious risk for the respiratory system.  The highest number on the scale is 500.  Mercer County’s air quality hovers around 50 in summer, and even New York City is normally in the range of 51-100.  Beijing’s typical air quality level was around 200, which is almost considered normal for the city.  Beijing had been in the grip of severe smog and haze for a number of days prior to my arrival, and reached dangerous levels upon the fourth day after my arrival.  My hotel room was on the 16th floor and yet there was no visibility outside my window beyond 200 feet.  The sky always appeared dark during my stay as if a storm were about to arrive.  I could actually taste the air when I breathed, and it smelled like burnt coal.  Air monitoring data released from the US Embassy on my seventh day of stay showed that the air quality readings from the US Embassy in Beijing hit 475.  Surprisingly to me, pedestrians did not even bother to wear dust masks – that said, those surgical face masks would not do anything to stop PM2.5 particles anyway.  A few expats wore N95 respirators to protect themselves from PM2.5 (An N95 respirator is a respiratory protective device designed to prevent the wearer from breathing in very small particles that may be in the air.)

If you noticed, I quoted the air quality reading issued by the US Embassy in Beijing, not the official data published by the Chinese government because there is always a gap between the Chinese government figures and those of the US Embassy.  The Chinese government’s index is ostensibly a 24 hour average reading from monitors all over the city, On the other hand, the Air Quality Index reading from the US Embassy is generated on-site in downtown Beijing.  Like most of the city, traffic is heavy around the
embassy, hence the consistently less healthy index of air quality than the official government index.  The Embassy, located in the core of the old city, is likely to have worse readings than weather stations located further out in the more recently developed areas.  This is the reason, as listed on the US Embassy’s website, for the US and Chinese readings differing.

Since Beijing has so often been shrouded in thick fog and haze, the market for dust masks and air purifiers has boomed.  Between 2011 and early this year, the sale of air purifiers in China grew a hundredfold.  The expats in Beijing are always talking about where they can get the best air purifiers.   An American friend of mine, whom I have known for a very long time, has told me that he has spent upwards of twenty four thousand US dollars importing air purifiers from the US for his four bedroom home in Beijing. Air pollution is also blamed for a drop in Beijing tourism. According to the State-run newspaper: the total number of tourists arriving in Beijing during the first half of 2013 dropped 14.3 percent compared to the same period last year.

China has actually taken various measures to fight the air pollution.  The authorities have spent 350 RMB ($58 billion USD) with the aim of reducing harmful particles in the air in 117 cities by at least 5% by 2014.  Unfortunately, despite government efforts to reduce smog levels (including shutting down high-polluting factories, banning vehicles from the road one day a week to reduce heavy traffic and vehicle emissions, importing natural gas from other provinces to rely less on coal for heating and cooking), pollution so far still regularly reaches off-chart levels in Beijing.  Yes, “long is the way, and hard….” (“Paradise Lost” by John Milton), but “where there is a will there is a way.”  People deserve clean and healthy air.

Sources: U.S. Embassy in Beijing,

Below are photographs I took from the window of the hotel room where I stayed.

- Jean C.


  1. Quite a problem. Glad that u are back healthy!


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