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Pollution in China – is it really that bad?

If you’re considering relocating to China, you’ve most likely heard or read a lot about pollution being a problem in many cities in the country. But how bad is it really? And which areas are more polluted than others?

Many of us at China Expat Health have lived in China for over a decade so we are certainly well-placed to give useful insight. Although our observation may by and large be anecdotal, our experience of everyday life in China gives a very authentic perspective on the actual reality on the ground and what the actual effect of all these PM2.5 numbers and figures you see in news reports is. For the uninitiated, PM.2.5 refers to tiny particles in the atmosphere, commonly associated with sources of pollution, which can damage the lungs.

Firstly, there’s no doubt China has an air pollution problem. That is not in question. However there are many western cities which also have less than perfect air, and we tend not to hear so much about this. So clearly it’s about the degree of pollution and what is acceptable and what actually may affect your health.

The biggest factor to address when looking at pollution if you are planning or considering coming to work in China is where you will actually be located. There is quite some difference between various regions and cities in China. And according to various credible sources, the statistics may somewhat surprising to expats already living in China and even to Chinese citizens.

A study by Greenpeace Asia of the Chinese government’s official 2013 air quality data revealed that Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, was the most badly polluted region of the country. This area includes cities Shijiazhuang and Baoding which have small expat communities.

Xingtai in Hebei is at the most polluted end of the scale with a annual average PM2.5 level (micrograms per cubic meter) of 155. At the opposite end is Haikou on 25.6 which is perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly given its location on the south China sea island of Hainan. The city of Lhasa in Tibet is slightly ahead of Haikou on the scale.

Most of the cities where foreigners commonly relocate to are on the high-to-middling end of the scale of this survey, with the exception of Kunming in south-west China – it’s 2,000m elevation, climate and relatively smaller size make it the least polluted of China’s main cities with an annual average PM2.5 level of 35.5.

The Chinese government’s safe limited is 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

Air pollution effects

In terms of the actual effects of pollution, the impact varies widely from individual to individual. China Expat Health is based in Shanghai which has an an annual average PM2.5 level of 60.7 according to the aforementioned study. For the sake of comparison of other tier one cities, Beijing’s figure is 90.1 and Guangzhou’s 52.2.

So taking Shanghai as a moderately polluted city in Chinese terms, it can be said that pollution is a subjective phenomena. The city is located near the sea and fog is common, but for some this is described as smog because they already have the idea in their mind that the city is polluted. Many use apps from pollution monitoring services like http://aqicn.org which collate and poll lots of data from individual sources which give a more scientific basis for the pollution level.

We do hear complaints from some who suffer respiratory diseases that they have breathing difficulties on heavily polluted days – we even heard of at least one client who did not have any kind of asthma until they had lived in Shanghai for several years. But in real terms, on most days the pollution in Shanghai is not noticeable or remarked upon by most people and there are many who have spent their whole life in the city who claim to suffer no effects.

In Beijing the situation is a little more pronounced as the pollution is quantitatively worse there, again however for most the issue of pollution only tends to come up in the fall and winter months when the issue is at it’s worst. International schools in Beijing have started advertising the fact that their classrooms are equipped with air filters – this is, at the very least, a sign that the issue is a big concern for expats with families.

To conclude, if you are planning to stay for only a few years it is unlikely that the pollution will cause any lasting effects. But it all depends where you are, how much the issue is on your mind, your personal susceptibility to its effects and how much attention you pay to news and social media.

Ultimately the best thing to do is to buy air filters for your home, and make sure you can seek medical advice for respiratory-related illnesses without hesitation by calling China Expat Health today to make sure you are covered for health insurance.

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