It’s sometimes said that a school is only as good as its teachers – and here in China, international schools are suffering: they are facing an increasingly uphill battle to recruit and retain quality teachers.

A high teaching standard, in turn, is unsurprisingly amongst the top criteria by which an international school is judged and with so many new international schools opening up in China in 2014 the competition for the hiring of teaching superstars is fiercer than ever.

A look at the discussions taking place on many of the popular online international schools forums gives some insight into what is probably the most compelling reason why many of the most experienced international school teachers are thinking twice before coming to China: air pollution and food safety.

A recent statement by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection during the launch of the 2013 Report on the State of China’s Environment, revealed what all expats living in China already know, which is that China is losing the battle on air pollution. Only three of the 74 major Chinese cities subject to air quality standards met the national standard for good air quality in 2013. While a recent government report estimated that 20% of the country’s farmland is polluted and the land and resources ministry has said that nearly 60% of groundwater is polluted.


Air pollution is without a doubt the single biggest factor that puts many expats off moving to (or staying in) China. The links between air pollution and health issues are well documented and while not solely the result of the poor air quality, lung cancer and cardiovascular disease in China are on the rise. By way of comparison, in Los Angeles, generally thought to have poor air by US standards, the average annual air quality index (AQI) reading is around 50, which is at least two times lower than most major metropolitan areas in China, such as Beijing and Shanghai. According to the China Real Time Pollution Index, based on data collected for the 2028 days between April 2008 and March 2014, only 25 days can be considered “good” by US standards. That being said, Dr. William Chickering from Beijing’s United Family Hospital has suggested that some of the short-term effects of exposure to air pollution were sinus congestion, runny nose, tearing eyes or dry cough but that “the great majority of otherwise healthy people suffer no lasting harm, even with six years of exposure”. He believes that “only two groups seem to be at any risk for lasting harm. One is children, a tiny percentage of whom may develop asthma or suffer slightly retarded lung growth that would not have occurred in a cleaner environment. The other is people who appear healthy but who may have underlying coronary artery disease”.

The expat workaround: air purifiers and facemasks. Air purifiers are devices for the home and office which remove contaminants from the air, and the market for them in China is not surprisingly booming. Many doctors also recommended wearing facemasks on the worst days. The N95 mask is a standout performer, filtering 95% of airborne particulates. Dr. Chickering accepts that wearing a mask can provide some benefit, but remains skeptical over their long-term impact: “Masks do help with the irritant stuff. They may even help with the irreversible-harm stuff, though probably not much.”


A growing population and rapid economic development, as well as lax environmental oversight have increased water demand and water pollution. Several years ago, the Beijing Times found that half of Beijing’s bottled water jugs were counterfeit, using tap water or water being passed off as a brand it was not. Tap water in China is not safe to drink – most expats either boil their water or buy it bottled. China’s official news agency reported last year that about one-third of China’s water resources are groundwater-based, and that only 3% of the country’s urban groundwater can be classified as “clean”. “The situation is quite serious – groundwater is an important source for water use, including drinking water, and if it gets contaminated, it’s very costly and difficult to clean,” said Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

The expat workaround: opinions are divided here with many expats insisting that even bottled water is unsafe to drink. Indeed, according to a 2011 China Daily survey, 31 leading water brands failed inspection due to high levels of bacteria. Some of the ways to ensure your bottled water will not do you harm is to make sure you purchase a recognised brand from a reputable seller, and make sure to change your water machines regularly. For those that refuse to drink even bottled water, then water filtration systems are available to be fitted in your home, at a cost of course.


Not a week goes by in China without a new food scandal. In a story that has to be seen to be believed, in March 2013 15,000 dead pigs were found in Shanghai’s main river, thankfully away from the city centre. The slaughter of so many pigs was the result of a crackdown on the illicit pig-trade in neighbouring Zhejiang province. In May 2013, the Ministry of Public Security released a press statement warning Shanghai consumers that in many instances the popular lamb meat skewers available from street vendors were in fact made of rat, fox or mink meat. In June 2013, police uncovered 10 underground mills, again in Zhejiang province, that were cleaning large amounts of out-of-date chicken drumsticks and wings with chemical additives and coloring agents to be re-sold to the public.

The expat workaround: many expats will only cook at home using meats and ingredients purchased from Western-style supermarkets selling imported goods. While this is a sure way to ensure that you won’t get sick, imported foodstuffs in China can be expensive and, more than anything else, eating out in China (including the street food) is a big part of the China experience so it would be a shame to miss out for fear of getting sick. When eating out, make sure to follow a few rules such as – most important – avoiding empty restaurants, using disposable chopsticks where you can and consider eating only organic fruit and vegetables.

So what else can international schools do to alleviate the problems and ensure that the teachers they want to hire, will still come to China? The biggest single way schools can help is to provide the support and resources to ensure that they make their teacher’s stay in China as comfortable and safe as possible. The school’s community should be a resource for sharing ideas for how to live healthily and safely in China. Many schools now operate air purifiers throughout their buildings, the result of which means the air quality at many of the leading international schools in China is of a higher quality than any school in the United States.

A further way to address the issue is to ensure the school’s board and administration plays a leading role in promoting healthy living and a healthy school culture. Schools need to implement a board-level strategy that shows they care about their staff’s health and well being, and then reinforce that strategy constantly. Providing a strong medical insurance package is a big part of this. As a minimum, make sure your school’s medical insurance package includes a routine physical examination, or health check-up.

For all teachers living in China, obtaining a routine health check-up each year serves as a preventative and early warning mechanism against illnesses that otherwise could have become much more serious in future.

All of this only serves to strengthen the sense of security for teachers when living in China. If your school does not provide medical insurance for your teachers, or if your plan does not include an an annual health check-up, please get in contact with one of One World Cover’s consultants today. You never know, having the right medical insurance package may just help you to recruit that superstar teacher.