Our air, ourselves (Part 2: pollution mitigation)

Second post in a series about air pollution in China 

A day in the life of an expat in China:

Wake up, hit snooze.

Wake up, turn off alarm. Check weather while putting on slippers. Check pollution level while walking to kitchen for breakfast.

I may have cilia in my nose and a variety of mucus membranes in my body designed to keep intruders out of my lungs, but they are no match for particulate matter.

In the first post in this series, I wrote about the air quality index (AQI), which we check every day to see the level of pollution outside. These numbers tell us what kind of problems we could face if we go about without any breathing protection. Here are the rough guidelines we’ve used to determine what protection to use.

  • For AQI under 100, we often don’t wear masks.
  • For AQI 100-200, we wear filter masks with valves.
  • For AQI 200 and above, we wear respirators.

Numbers above 200 are, so far, more common in the winter. (We’ve lived here only about six months now, though, so only time will tell. But here is some additional information from another blogger living in China: http://www.onsetbayphoto.com/blog2/?p=2116)

Here’s some information about the masks we wear (written by Andy, since he knows much more about this having worked in industrial settings)

Filter mask: (white mask I’m wearing in the photo) 3M 2297. Rated at P100 filtration by NIOSH in the United States. It has some img_1965activated charcoal and also handles a limited amount of “nuisance-level” organic vapors. (For worse vapors, like maybe this winter, we will use dedicated vapor cartridges with P100 filters on the front.) This is a newer filter that provides P100 filtration with the same pressure differential as conventional P95 filters, so it requires less breathing effort. The “P” designator also means that it’s resistant to oil, which only seems helpful here.

Respirator: (big mask Andy is wearing in the photo) 3M 6500 Series Rugged Comfort. They come in different sizes. We have a medium (p/n 6502). The large is p/n 6503. I’ve heard that smalls are basically for children.


Some questions we get asked/you may have:

  1. Are they comfortable? – Yes and no. I prefer the white mask over the respirator because I sweat easily (slimy masks are no fun!) and also because I like to wear makeup (my mask is always the one with pink lipgloss in it!). Andy prefers the respirator because his five o’clock shadow grows in by noon and his stubble tears up the white masks, leaving fuzz on his face. All preferences go out the window when health is at risk, though, so when I wear my respirator, it’s a total shit pollution day…
  2. Do they mess up your hair? – Yes. I have better hair days that no one will ever see or appreciate because I prefer to breathe more than I prefer to have perfect hair. The white mask’s straps go around your neck and above your ears, so at least they don’t hurt your ears! The respirator’s straps are held in place by a halo that rests on the crown of your head and around your neck.
  3. Do they actually help? – Yes. If I go a few hours without a mask outside on a day of AQI 120 or higher, I will get a headache and sometimes a sore throat. I have gotten sick from breathing in the polluted air before. During the three weeks that I lived in Beijing late last spring, I rarely wore a mask. I also paid for it dearly because I was sick nearly the entire time, lost my voice, had a horrible cough, and it took me weeks to feel better after returning to the U.S. Living here in Suzhou, China, now means being proactive so that doesn’t happen again.
  4. How do I check the AQI? – Simple! You can go to the airnow.gov website and type in your location to find out the estimated AQI near you. Or, if you’re not in the U.S., you can download a reliable mobile phone app to help. I like to use AirVisual (https://airvisual.com) because I can save several locations and compare them (since one reporting station isn’t always accurate!). I also like AirVisual’s ranking of pollution around the world and the map o’ smog feature (my pet name for the map view).

So what do we do indoors? We use an IQ Air HealthPro Plus purifier (http://www.iqair.com/home-air-purifiers/healthproseries). It’s on 24 hours a day and we move it from room to room as we go about our days.

So what do we do when we’re not at home? At my desk at the university, I have a SmartAir original DIY fan air filter (http://smartairfilters.com/cn/en/).

So what do I do when I’m not in my office? Hope and pray, mostly. Bad air outdoors means air indoors isn’t much better. Chinese are big fans of letting in “fresh air” from outside via open windows and doors (yes, even in the wintertime), so the air outside is air everywhere. There is no avoiding it.

The real solution to the problem of air pollution is not to pollute the air and to encourage everyone–government leaders, politicians, non-profit organizations, and especially regular people like you and me–to do everything in their power to

  1. not pollute the air (this includes not burning wood, coal, tires, plastics, and styrofoam)
  2. call out polluters (this includes calling the police when people violate burning ordinances or emissions standards on motor vehicles)
  3. vote for people who will hold industries responsible for the pollution they create and provide ways for industries to revise their processes with safer, clean air practices
  4. urge current government leaders to keep, improve, and uphold clean air policies AROUND THE WORLD (pollution in China doesn’t stay in China!)

Things that won’t protect you from air pollution:

  • thin paper surgical masks – those were made to keep germs from spreading and offer absolutely no filtration or protection at all. (These are the kind most Chinese wear, if anything.)
  • staying inside – see above, but even with a proper HVAC system (which is rare in China) polluted air will get everywhere.
  • lots of indoor plants – house plants are terrific and I love them, but they won’t “eat” pollution or fix the problem. They will help with your CO2, CO, and formaldehyde problems, though, thanks to phytoremediation. But they cannot do anything about PM2.5.
  • staying out of China – nope. Air pollution here is air pollution everywhere. We just see it more here because of its local creation. The way to avoid it is to solve the problem and pollute less.

Up next in this series on the realities of air pollution in China: breathing problems, lung cancer, and premature death.



One thought on “Our air, ourselves (Part 2: pollution mitigation)

  1. Thanks for posting this! We have trouble with pollution when we visit Salt Lake City in the winter (under the right conditions, air from the city gets trapped by the mountains and builds up). I’d be interested to hear about whether there’s any pressure from the Chinese citizens to increase regulation, or whether this is perceived as part of life that can’t be helped.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s