Spending any part of winter in Beijing means dealing with varying degrees of smog and pollution. This year, the Chinese government has decided to issue red alerts when heavy smog (AQI exceeding 200) is expected to last for two or more consecutive days, and advise children and seniors to stay indoors as much as possible, people to reduce outdoor activities. Schools are closed and the number of motor vehicles on the roads are restricted. In December alone, two red alerts were issued, each preceding five to six consecutive smog-filled days.
Needless to say, it’s pretty difficult to avoid discussions about the smog in Beijing whether in the real or virtual world (inside or outside of the Great Firewall of China). Old-timers and newcomers alike moan about breathing difficulties, feeling poorly/depressed and the need to wear a mask outdoors and turning on air purifiers for days on end.
The athletic community, on the other hand, obsess about the health benefits (or lack thereof) of exercising (indoors or out) when air quality is obnoxiously bad. Many early morning group rides in the warmer months have been preceded by conversations of personal limits when it comes to AQI levels, and aborted when the northern winds don’t arrive as per the weather forecast.
As you can see from the screen shot of the Wake Me Run Run app on my Iphone, my personal AQI upper limit is 150. I figured if I’m going to forsake two hours of sleep to exercise outside, I’d rather do it in decent quality air. I’ve cycled outside when the AQI hovered between 180 and 200 and found it hard to breathe even with a mask on. When the AQI exceeds 300 outside, I find it tough even running 5 km on the treadmill in the gym with the air purifiers turned on.
I’ve met athletes whose performance seem unaffected even when the AQI exceeds 200 and I’m truly envious of them. But we all know that the PM2.5 air particles we suck right into our lungs stick around for a long time, if not forever, with the potential to give us respiratory problems or even cancer in the future.
All hope is not lost (yet). There’s been quite a few studies conducted overseas about the benefits of exercising outside in polluted air. One of my tri mates (he came in second in his very competitive age group at last year’s Beijing International Triathlon) wrote a piece on this topic, listing his personal limits for exercising and citing a number of articles on these studies. The overall consensus seems to be that it’s better to do some exercise than not at all, but keep it to under an hour when the air quality is poor (150-300) and do nothing when the AQI is higher than 300.
On a positive note, we’ve been getting clean air for the most part since the second week of 2017 as temperatures drop to sub-zero. I’ve overcome my fear of the biting cold and run outside three times, relishing every minute. Now if I can get my hands on a balaclava mask, I might just muster up courage to cycle outside this weekend.
As winter comes to Beijing and financially strapped households burn coal 24-7 to heat up their humble homes, Beijing becomes shrouded in smog for days on end every other week until heavy snow or wind clears the air. Beijing made headlines all over the world this week by announcing a Red Alert, closing schools and factories and restricting the number of motor vehicles on the roads for the last three days.
There’s been much written about the causes of the smog and its effects on our health, so I won’t repeat it here. For those interested to read more on this topic, check out these posts:
Having lived in Beijing for the last six years, I’ve experienced my fair share of heavy smog and have accumulated some knowledge and survival tips from online research, discussions with friends and my own trials and errors. It’s time to crystalise it all into a post (especially since I’m sick of repeating myself like a broken tape recorder to China virgins on the topic).
Out and about
There’s no hard and fast rules about what the air quality index (AQI) should be before one dons a face mask when venturing outdoors. When I couldn’t ride my bike and was walking and taking public transport a lot last month, I didn’t bother wearing a mask when I was outside, even when the AQI went beyond 150 (already unhealthy according to the US Environmental Protection). Now that I am cycling again, I wear a RESPRO Techno mask so I’m not inhaling dust particles and exhaust fumes.
Many of my local and foreigners friends who don’t wear masks on days when the AQI is above 150 usually complain of a sore throat or irritations in their respiratory tracts. It’s also important to wear a mask with a filter that can either be washed in water or changed.
For friends who baulk at the price of a RESPRO (about RMB450 from the World Health Store), I recommend they get one of the following masks:
If you don’t like the look of the usual air pollution masks, then Vogmasks are for you. Price between RMB 180-250, they come in a huge range of colours and designs, so you can buy different ones to go with your outfits. But unfortunately they don’t hide the fact that you’re physically wearing a mask.
When I first moved to Beijing six years ago, I didn’t see the point of getting an air purifier for my apartment. I naively believed that as long as I stayed indoors as much as possible when the AQI was particularly high, I’d be fine. I didn’t suffer from asthma, insomnia or any other condition that made the purchase of an air purifier absolutely necessary. Besides the only models of air purifiers available in Beijing at that time all cost upwards of RMB 10,000, another deterrent as far as I was concerned.
Then the first Airpocalypse happened in 2013. I still remember that Saturday in January 2013. I was playing boardgames with some friends in a bar when I decided to check the AQI on my mobile. Within a span of a couple of hours, the number had jumped from 100+ to 600+. I made an involuntary remark about it to the other gamers, and the marathon runner in our midst sighed in resignation, as it meant he wouldn’t be going for a run outdoors later that day.
That evening when I travelled to the southwest corner of Beijing to meet some friends for Peking duck, the AQI had climbed to over 800. I ditched my original idea of cycling, and took the metro instead. Even in the metro stations, yellowish brown clouds of smog were suspended in mid air. I wore my face mask while I was outside and during my entire metro journey and only took it off to eat at the restaurant. When I made my way home from the metro station later that evening, visibility on the roads was less than 50 meters. My breathing felt noticeably laboured, even when I slept that night.
Since that fateful day, I’d acquired three air purifiers. My first air purifier was a cheap and cheerful Smart Air Original which was more than enough for my bedroom when I was sharing an apartment with a flatmate. Since moving to my current 55-sqm place in Dongzhimen and acquiring an Origins Laser Egg which monitors real-time air quality, I’d bought two more air purifiers, in the hopes of getting the AQI in my apartment down to 50 or less when the AQI is over 200. Unfortunately, my apartment is on the first floor of a very old high-rise building, so outside air seeps in one way or another. When the AQI outside went over 250, I’d only managed to get the AQI in my apartment down to 120 at best, even after leaving both air purifiers turned on constantly for over 24 hours.
My friends and colleagues have asked me how I decided which air purifiers to buy for my apartment. I’ve always relied on the research of others. Here’s an English article I’ve been recommending to my friends and colleagues to read before putting their hard earned cash down for an air purifier (or two). Don’t be surprised if many of the affordable air purifiers mentioned in the article (such as the Mi Air Purifier) are sold out. The air pollution situation in Beijing has been that bad.
These are the two air purifiers currently going full blast in my apartment:
I bought this brand new during the 11 November sales on Philips online store on Taobao.com for RMB 699. The dials are all in Chinese but are quite easy to work out if you refer to the English instructions on Philips’ Hong Kong website.
I recently inherited this from a friend who left Beijing for the US. After learning of Air-O-Swiss’ merger with BONECO while researching for this post, I’m now a little worried about where I can get replacement filters since Boneco doesn’t produce the model I have anymore. I haven’t found any online stores on Taobao that sold the replacement filters and I doubt I’d be able to in the future. Hmm….
My fellow Beijingers, how have you been coping with air pollution? I’d be interested to hear from you.
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