On the Thorny Issue of Beijing Air Quality…

Beijing Travel Report Beijing Smog 2

See the buildings disappearing into the mist.... I mean smog...

Maybe I should have named this “A Little Smog Never Hurt Anyone”.  Na, I can’t quite make that statement.  I am not a pollution specialist nor a doctor.

Given that this is a travel blog to encourage you to get out and kick Beijing’s “tires”, I have been thinking about the best way to approach  Beijing’s smog problem.  It is a dilemma for me; because I do not want to discourage you from going to this historical city.

It would be a shame if this is the reason you did not go.  Skipping Beijing because of a dirty air problem would be equivalent to not picking up a dirty piece of gold.  The history and culture are not to be missed.  Still, it is a public relations issue for China, no doubt.  It is also a potential health issue for those with respiratory and heart problems.

It is for those of you that have breathing and heart related issues that I make this post.  The rest of you, don’t whimp out of me because of some dirty air.

So, Just How Bad it is?

I won’t sugarcoat it.  Mmmmmm.  Candied crabapples...  Oh, sorry.  I really love those.  Hehe.

At times, it can get very bad.  Just like any major city, the level and composition of the smog will vary from day to day.  The winds, seasons, and distinct periods of human activity all make the degree of pollution change.  Rate of industrialization also plays heavy into the Beijing smog equation.

There are several factors that contribute to the severity:

  • Mountains – Beijing, like Los Angeles, is surrounded on 3 sides by mountains.
  • Exploding Population – Like Los Angeles in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, Beijing is today experiencing a huge percentage of population growth in a short time
  • More Cars – The expansion in the size of the middle class is increasing the number of cars on the road.
  • Power Plants– Power plants in the area are coal fired
  • Home Based Fossil Fuel – Many of the population still use coal disks to heat their older homes and cook their food
  • Lack of Regulation – The lack of strict pollution controls on local industry
  • Lots of Building – The large amount of building sites in the city to accommodate the new population
  • Sand Storms – Frequent sand and dust storms
  • Other Large Cities – The location of other polluted cities close by, such as Tianjin.

Wow.  Looks like Beijing has its work cut out to work against all those factors.  Some estimates say that it will be 20 years before there can be any meaningful reduction is air pollutants.

Who Should be Concerned?

Beijing Travel Report Gold Nugget - Periodic Table

Thar' is cult'ral Gold in that thar' capital. No, not my gold, sadly...

If you have heart or breathing problems, then you should take precautions.   You will not have access to your normal doctor and pharmacy while there.  Let your doctor know that you are going to Beijing, and see if they can give you any additional advice.  Bring any medications and breathing assistance items (like inhalers) with you, and make sure you have extra.

It is possible that you will show up for a 5 day tour of Beijing, and find only blue skies.  That does happen.  However, there is usually some air pollution every day.  I do graph the data from the US Embassy’s Twitter feed on my Beijing Air Quality Data page.  There is are almost always  some periods everyday where the Air Quality Index reading is in the “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” range, and often higher than that. 

If you think “sensitive groups” means people that like to watch chick flicks and cry, that is not the kind of sensitive they are talking about.  😀

If you do not have heart or lung problems, and you are not normally short of breath, you still want to be aware of days with very high pollution.  This would be considered as any day with an average AQI (Air Quality Index) over 150.  You simply may not have the stamina there that you have at home.  Plan your in-city activities with that in mind.

“The Chinese Live With it Every Day, and They are Doing Fine!”

Yep, you are right in that they live with it every day.  Beijing has 18+ million people that breathe the city air constantly, and they are not all dead.  I can offer three points on why that is.

  1. They have a healthier diet than we do.  That may compensate somewhat, though they are starting to learn to eat like us.  Face it.  You are not going all the way to China to eat healthy; you are going to “vacation”.
  2. They are a more “physical” culture than we are.  They have not automated themselves to the point of sitting around an office all day, and in front of a computer and tv all night.
  3. The pollution has only gotten worst in the last 20 years.  The long term effects have not surfaced yet amongst the population.

Don’t worry. It will catch up with them.

“Maybe I Should Not Go?”

Oh, don’t think that way.  If you are a reasonably healthy person, a short tour of Beijing will probably do you no harm.  Don’t let that stop you from enjoying the enormous trove of treasures to see and experience in this ancient capital city.

I know that it is not going to stop me from returning for additional Beijing “knowledge” tours.  AND candied crabapples.  Hehe.  –wink-

Share your thoughts about this with your buddies, and with me below.

Visit +Kenny Edwards on Google+.