Our air, ourselves (Part 1: PM 2.5)

First post in a series about air pollution in China 

That is not fog.

I’m writing this to the whirr of the indoor air purifier. All my windows and doors are sealed because outside it isn’t just cold: the air isn’t safe to breathe.

I know the air isn’t safe because of the AQI or Air Quality Index, which was developed by the U.S. EPA. Andy and I check the AQI alongside the weather forecast every day. I have an application on my iPhone that tells me what the estimated air pollution is in my location, and it breaks down the numbers by kinds of pollutants: ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, PM 2.5, and PM 10. PM is “particulate matter,” which is a scientific name for soot, but this is a very simplified way to think of PM.

It’s not just soot in the sense of ash or what we in the U.S. like to think of as an industry-town’s dark air (e.g., Pittsburgh in 1970). Particulate matter is much more than that:

PM is a mixture with physical and chemical characteristics varying by location. Common chemical constituents of PM include sulfates, nitrates, ammonium, other inorganic ions such as ions of sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium and chloride, organic and elemental carbon, crustal material, particle-bound water, metals (including cadmium, copper, nickel, vanadium and zinc) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). In addition, biological components such as allergens and microbial compounds are found in PM. – WHO, 2013

PM 2.5 is the microscopic variety of PM that can get into your lungs and cannot get out. The results of exposure are varied, depending on the length of exposure, but general symptoms include coughing, trouble breathing, chest tightness, phlegm, and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.

We have experienced all of those living here in Suzhou, one of China’s less polluted cities, for about four months.

Studies also link exposure to PM 2.5 with decreased lung function, respiratory illness like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, and lung disease.

Pollution like this isn’t going away, especially in China.

And at this point I would like to point out that it doesn’t matter if you believe in climate change or not: air pollution is real, PM 2.5 is real, and its effects are real.

Up next in this series on air pollution: mitigation. Masks, filters, purifiers, and avoidance.



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