My Beijing Pollution Truth

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Winter blue sky day in Beijing

We’ve all seen the images on TV and in the news. Grey skies thick with smog, buildings barely visible and faces covered with surgical masks. Words like ‘apocalyptic’, ‘dangerous hazard’ and ‘barely suitable for living’ are thrown around. But what is it really like to live with the infamous Beijing pollution?

The first thing you have to know is that the really bad days are not nearly as common as the media would have you believe. Those ‘apocalyptic’ days don’t happen every week or even every month (of course,  they can also happen several time in a month or for prolonged periods). Recently I was watching the BBC news (yep, we get that out here in China) and the reporter described blue sky days as ‘very rare.’ I disagree as, to my memory, I have definitely seen more blue sky days than smog covered ones since we arrived in Beijing last August.

However, that doesn’t mean the air is good. I think my sense of what clean air is has become warped since I moved here. There may not be as many of the super bad days as it looks like on the news, but there are more than enough days when the pollution levels would be unacceptable back home in the UK. Apparently, in 2013, fewer than half the days were good quality air days! So whilst the good days are really good and the bad days are really bad, there’s a whole lot of ‘still pretty bad for you actually’ days in between. This means fewer outdoor activities such as hiking or jogging and a lot more indoor time.

What’s prompted me to reflect on this is the extreme swing we have had this week. The first few days of the week we had beautiful blue sky days. The kind of dry, crisp and sunny days that I longed for after leaving the similar climate of South Korea and moving to damp, grey London. I’ve enjoyed layering up and being outside.  The second half of the week has been marred with extremely high pollution levels. As I write this, the app on my phone tells me it’s 449. Once you pass 300 it’s ranked as hazardous. After several days of this I’m convinced I can feel my lungs burning (although it’s nowhere near as bad as the pollution we experienced in Xi’an).

Today has been the first day I have really felt down about the pollution. For the first few months in Beijing it almost felt like a funny novelty; checking the AQI app everyday, being delighted when I saw a number below 50 and being able to stare directly at the sun on really smoggy days. But, as we pass through the period that I’m told is the worst for pollution levels, I’m finding it upsetting. Why shouldn’t I be able to see the sky or exercise outside? Why should I have to worry about my lungs and my skin and my general health? I worry about the security guards and other workers in this city who have to stand outside all day and night breathing this air directly. I worry about the air quality in my apartment as we don’t have an air purifier (we’d need several to purify our mostly open plan, 2 bed apartment properly. And they are not cheap). I get fed up looking at the greyness.

But, despite all this, I do not regret moving to Beijing. For me, being able to experience a blue sky day on the Great Wall of China or a clear evening outside at a hutong bar, is worth the bad days.  To live in this exciting, ever changing city and experience a different country and culture, you have to take the bad with the good. I am lucky that we chose to come here, we knew about the pollution before and we decided to take the risk. Beijing is only our temporary home so we can leave if we want, unlike the millions and millions of Chinese people who will have to suffer the consequences of this pollution for their whole lives.

We are glad we weren’t deterred from coming. The British media does focus on those bad days and never shows the good ones. I cling to the belief that living here for a just a few years will not do any lasting damage to our health. But I still look forward to a time when I will wake up everyday knowing the air will always be good enough and I can go outside without ever worrying for my lungs. Until then, I’ll just look forward to the next Beijing blue sky day. In this place you never know, it could well be tomorrow.

* This is MY Beijing pollution truth as this is only how I feel about the air in Beijing. Other people may hate it more or less than me. 🙂

5 thoughts on “My Beijing Pollution Truth

  1. Thank you for putting things in context, I’ll share that article as it means I won’t have to write it 🙂

    A few things though: The atrocious swing we had last week was mostly due to all the Beijingers firing the remnants of they hundreds of Kgs of fireworks before the last day of the “fireworks-allowed” two-weeks (ie. Lantern Festival on Friday). But even though it was terrible, it wasn’t near as bad as the badass airpocalypse from last year 🙁

    And as for Air Purifiers, you don’t really have to buy an expensive [Insert expensive brand here} one, as you can build very easily one for around 200kuai: http://www.myhealthbeijing.com/pollution/a-200-rmb-diy-air-purifier/

    Finally, when it comes to outdoor activities, my rule of thumb is: below 150 (US Embassy measures, not the Beiing Municipality ones) I can run/tennis/badminton outside, above 150 I have to go to the gym 🙁

    1. Hi, thank you for your comment and the air purifier advice. I know, I heard it was much worse last year so we are quite lucky really. It wasn’t too bad at all between August and January. Hopefully this current bout of smog will clear up soon (it’s here until Thursday apparently).

  2. We were there for a few days last year and it was bad, but not terrible. I think you are right though, your perspective of “clear” changes. It does make for some great sunsets!

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