This winter has been particularly bad. January alone had 19 days of hazardous air quality, which means that levels of the smallest particulate matter soared to over 301 micrograms per cubic meter. The U.S. Embassy, which monitors Beijing’s air quality, says that hazardous air can lead to “serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; serious risk of respiratory effects in general population.”
Not long ago, the embassy posted recommendations about what to do in hazardous air situations. When the pollution rises above 500 (which the embassy calls “beyond index,” although the term “crazy bad” also has been used), it advises people to stay indoors with air purifiers, be familiar with the signs of heart attack and stroke, and remain sedentary. Don’t burn candles. There’s even a link for a California site on dealing with wildfire smoke, which creates the same level of fine particulates as really bad air days in China. Justin Higgins, an embassy spokesman, said, “I think it’s fair to say, given the recent conditions, that we wanted to push our recommendations out there.”
Not the most polluted city
It’s hard to compare Beijing’s bad air days to conditions in the United States. A friend of mine who grew up in Los Angeles in the 1960s recalls the California smog as “a constant, eye-stinging haze that ranged from yellowish to brownish.” But the Clean Air Act in 1970 had an impressive effect, so much so that Salt Lake City had a minor freakout in December when its pollution reached a level that would be considered only moderate by Chinese standards: a smallest-particulate reading of 130. Utah officials deemed it a “public health emergency,” and USA Today described it as “sickening fog.”
By Chinese standards, it’s barely worth mentioning. In fact, 130 in Beijing is officially just “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” My husband and I consider 150 to be the rough cutoff for jogging outside.
On Jan. 12, the measurement reached 886, which one article equated to living in a smokers’ lounge. And Beijing isn’t even the most polluted city in China, according to the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection. That honor goes to Urumqi, in the far west of the country. We’re No. 3.