Before coming to exchange in China, my number one concern was the pollution I read about whilst I was in Australia. I read that pollution levels often exceed levels that are healthy for humans. I read that the sky is always grey. I read that there are sandstorms and the pollution is much worse in the wintertime. As news reached Australia about the pollution levels in New Delhi, I thought I’d share a bit about the pollution in my city of study, Beijing.

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How bad is the pollution in China?

Before I start, it is important to keep in mind that China is a huge country with roughly the same landmass as all of Europe combined. Therefore, pollution levels are often mixed and can differ drastically between provinces. In poorer, less industrial provinces like Yunnan, Guizhou and generally southern provinces, the pollution level is often very low. They are almost never any days with grey skies. In contrast, densely populated cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, whilst not industrial cities themselves, are usually surrounded by heavy industrial cities that often envelop themselves and cities around them in smog. Northern Chinese provinces, i.e. the cities north of the Huai river, are often much more heavily polluted in general and experiences higher levels of smog in the winter. This is because cities in the northern region have government subsidised free heating in the winter, a lot of which is produced through coal heating.

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Speaking from my personal experience, I would say that pollution levels vary a lot day by day here in Beijing. Looking at my phone, the Air Quality Index Levels (AQI) cite PM2.5 levels of from 50-300. The World Health Organisation’s guidelines deem AQI levels of less than 10μg/m3 of AQI to be a safe level of pollution. To be fair the WHO air quality model confirms that 92% of the world’s population live in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits*. For comparison, at the time of writing, the AQI levels in Tokyo range around 50, whilst levels in Melbourne ranges around 30. London currently records levels of around 60. The pollution in New Delhi this week reached levels of 700. The average level of pollution of pollution in China is around 85. I would say in Beijing, I am able to see the blue sky and breathe easily without a mask for 4 days a week. The pollution also tends to be much worse at night time that during the day. In days of important foreign visit such as when Trump came to China or APEC, the air is guaranteed to be pristine.

What are PM levels?

PM refers to Particulate Matter.The major components of PM are sulphate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water. It consists of a complex mixture of solid and liquid particles of organic and inorganic substances suspended in the air. The most health-damaging particles are those with a diameter of 10 microns or less, (≤ PM10), which can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs. Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer.

Is anything done to address the pollution?

As air pollution is one of the biggest concerns of the Chinese people, the Chinese government has introduced many measures to manage pollution levels in China. Heavy polluting industries such as those that use coal are being shut down on a mass scale. The government is investing heavily in sustainable technologies like solar, wind and nuclear energy. One policy includes awarding car manufacturers 1 point for producing electric cars and deducting 1 point for producing a conventional petrol car. Manufacturers that have negative points at the end of the two year period will be shut down. Currently, citizens can receive huge subsidies buying electric cars and charging stations are mandatory in all state buildings. The national government also sets targets for provincial governments on environmental protection and pollution that is mandatory to meet.

How do I address the pollution?

As students, there are many ways to combat the pollution levels whilst on exchange China. The easiest way to stay ahead of the pollution levels by checking the AQI levels regularly. The most reliable information is provided by the US embassy. If air pollution levels exceed 100 it is recommended that people wear a mask going out. Only special masks that filter pm2.5 are able to block pollution. The ones we typically use in Australia are only capable of blocking pollens and large dirt compounds. Currently, the most reliable one is the 3M pollution masks costing around 2AUD each. Students may also buy an air purifier for their room. The cheapest available purifiers costs around 40AUD with mid-ranged purifiers costing 100AUD such as the Xiaomi air purifiers. The purifiers can filter out the pollutants in your rooms to under PM2.5 levels of 10 in less than 20 minutes.

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Whilst the concerns about pollution is real and one should always take care of their health, I believe the situation is much less serious that is often believed. Most of the time the air pollution is quite minimal and the sky is blue and beautiful. It’s only in those rare instances of serious pollution that students here need to wear a mask to go out. If you are thinking about coming to China, I would suggest not to worry too much about the pollution and focus more on the dynamic history, culture, economy and people that await in China.

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