Bad air

The weekends that just passed witnessed one of the worse if not the worst day in Shanghai. The air was so bad that the sun turned red. This was posted on the Shanghai Mama website….

Hi folks,

If you know me, you know that I'm not a doom and gloom sort. I don't like scare tactics.

But, the air quality right now is (or should be) headline news and tomorrow would be a day to keep the kids (and yourselves) from exercising outside. And a good day to break out those particulate masks if you have any (not the useless cotton types that the ayis have but the N95 ones made by 3M and that contractors tend to have). Particulate matter are tiny, hardly visible particulates in air that lodge in our airways, and cause respiratory distress, asthma attacks, high blood pressure, and strokes. More on PM here.

I'm measuring the level of particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller (PM2.5) right now on my porch in Changning District at over 600 micrograms/m3, and the less damaging PM10 at over 800 micrograms/m3. The international standards (24-hr period) are 35 micrograms/m3 for PM2.5 and 50 for PM10 (US EPA and WHO, respectively) . That means that right now, the air is approximately 17x worse than the standard.

Mind-boggling, isn't it? My wife's response was unprintable.

Even according to China's own China's National Environmental Monitoring Center website PM10 right now is around 550 micrograms per cubic meter (PM2.5 is not reported in China). China itself sets 150 as its national standard. So, by whatever standard, the air is quite unhealthy now. As a reference point, Shanghai air is usually around 80-150 micrograms. This is Beijing-bad.

Bizarrely, Shanghai's Environmental Monitoring Center site is currently listing today's overall average air quality as "Minor Contamination" . I don't play politics, but this is frankly misleading, since this is the source data that feeds a lot of websites with these air quality indicators applets that expats check out daily.

The way I found out about this is that one of my consultants called me this morning, while doing a testing and said the instrument we use to measure particulates was giving abnormally high readings. I troubleshot things with her over the phone, but couldn't really figure out what was wrong. Later today, back at the office, I checked it against a reference machine (a HEPA filtered air purifier) and got regular numbers (around 3 micrograms). Still, the indoor levels were extremely high. I checked the various reference sites and found that sure enough, levels have been between 300-550 ug/m3 (PM10) today.

More interestingly, I personally have been having some breathing issues -- shortness of breath, coughing, and today, a splitting headache. I really did not associate these with the air until today's events. So, I'm just like the rest of you -- even though I should know better, I don't always make the connection between health symptoms and ambient air quality. I smell smoke, so believe that soot is a large part of this. With the colder weather, coal-fired power plants are likely on overdrive.