Pollution in China and What it Means for Your Commute

Wearing face masks for the pollution

Roommates and I prepping for the pollution with our various masks on hand

The pollution in China, particularly in Beijing, is bad, and I mean really bad. It may not actually be the silent but deadly electric scooters going the wrong way down the street or cars passing at night without any lights on that eventually gets me on my commute, but rather the slow death of inhaling the equivalent of packs (‘s’ is very deliberate) of cigarettes a day in urban pollution as I commute to work on my motorcycle. In fact, it has gotten so bad recently, that it’s actually finally reached the foreign media, as the LA Times recently reported on how nearly 1,000 flights had to be cancelled within just the first week of December due to low visibility!

The scariest thing however is the state of denial that the reporting of the local authorities reflects. Whenever there are flight cancellations or highway closures due to low visibility it is reported that it is fog. There will be no shortage of Chinese weather reports reporting on the 大雾 (thick fog) engulfing the city. At the risk of getting my site flagged by the GFW, I’ll leave my description of the “official” air quality reporting at that, and let the reader research further on the matter on his/her own, rather opting to describe a bit of my own experiences and how I typically deal with the silent, but not so invisible, hazard that is the air in Beijing.

How to Deal with the Pollution

Air Pollution in China

View of the pollution from my office. Normally you should be able to see Ikea in the top left (Ikea Index - dangerously low)

It has become a tradition among my two roommates and I to, every morning, report to each other what the official Air Quality Index reading is after we each throw around a couple guesses first. You can usually get a rough estimate given the relative visibility. You start to get a good idea of what it is using various landmarks within your field of vision of what you can see from the window, knowing what it must mean if you can see only two blocks away as opposed to two miles. From my office window, my colleague and I have, what we call “The Ikea Index” which is judged based off of how much of the nearby Ikea building we can see from our desks. If you can only just barely make out the iconic yellow, it’s usually dangerously high, and that’s when I’ll order food for lunch rather than leave the building.

Judging from this, as well as the official readings that one can find online, you can usually make a judgement on how much exposure to the outside air you are willing to subject yourself too. Otherwise it is safer to just stay inside, avoid most physically exerting activity, and surround yourself with good pollutant filtering plants.

Riding a Motorcycle Through the Pollution

Respro Urban Pollution Mask

Me donning my Respro air filter before setting out on the road

Since, however, I typically still must commute to work every day, and this is usually most conveniently done on my motorcycle, I decided to equip myself with a proper face mask made for urban pollutants, which is how I found the Respro. This may not be a perfect solution, especially compared to, say, living somewhere else, but it does the trick and it will have to do! That said, the effects are immediately noticeable, as the smells from outside are almost completely eliminated when I am wearing the mask. The mask also does a relatively good job of ventilating as I find that my helmet does not fog up too much, and the restriction of breath is not too noticeable either.

As it turns out, the masks are relatively easy to find in China as well. All I did to discover this mask was search on Tabao (a Chinese online marketplace) for a 口罩 (face mask) and I came upon a merchant selling them. Some quick research and I decided it was the mask for me! The real clincher though was the before and after comparison. After a few months of use when it didn’t feel like smells were being blocked out anymore (it should really be after only 60 hours of cumulative use that the filter is replaced), I bought a replacement filter and took a very revealing before and after picture.

The Takeaway

Respro air filters

The Before and after picture comparing the new filter to the 3 months in Beijing filter

As with most things in China, particularly related to motorcycling in China, there is always a risk involved, and in the case of the air pollution in China, it can be a serious risk (I recommend this incredible, and frightening Infographic from Green Peace on the air pollution in China). Thus, all one can hope to do is take a long deep breath (on second thought, maybe not too deep…) and keep on trudging along making sure to equip oneself with the best tools available.

If you have any experience commuting or dealing with urban air pollution, in China or otherwise, we’d love to hear your comments and stories in the comments section below!

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