It can be easy to make light of air pollution, especially after living in China for a long time. Many locals never wear masks and some families will let their children play outside when you can barely see across the street. But even if you’re not sensitive to it, pollution does have serious impacts on your health.
Coughing and sneezing, which I do non-stop if pollution levels are high, are not the only side effects. Short-term effects of air pollution include acne, dry skin, fatigue, eye irritations, chest pain, headaches and even nausea. Long-term effects can be as serious as chronic lung problems and heart complications. Before you pack your bags and book a one-way flight to leave China, take these simple steps to protect yourself.
Most masks are ugly, make your face sweat, fog up your glasses, make you sound like Darth Vader, leave marks on your face when you take them off and worst of all, they interfere with selfies. There are few things less sexy than a pollution masks… except maybe chronic wheezing.
Many people, myself included, struggle to find a mask that fits properly. If your mask is too loose or the nose clip doesn’t stay closed, you’re probably still inhaling millions of pollutant particles with every breath you take.
Take the time to try different styles of masks and experiment with sizes. I guarantee that that there is a mask out there that’s perfect for your face. Invest your time and money, nothing is too expensive when it comes to health. For 300 RMB you can get a great mask with exchangeable filters that will last you years. Buying cheap single-use masks will end up costing a lot anyway, not to mention the unnecessary waste they create.
Fun fact: fashionable face masks do exist.
Less fashionable ones can be bought on Taobao:
To be extra safe, keep your mask on in the metro. Many stops are partially outdoors or have terrible insulation. Wearing a mask on the metro will not only protect you from pollution but also viral infections. Have you noticed how right after the first Shanghai school gets shut down with chicken pox, the rest follow within the week? 25 million people riding the metro is a breeding ground for disease.
Fun fact: in Japan, many people wear masks only during their ride on the metro. It is rumored that a company in Beijing is working on a new super mask that won’t make your face sweat. It’s advertised as a sports mask because you can wear it to the gym and even run in it! But I’ll believe it when I see it.
I mentioned earlier that metro stops aren’t well insulated. Well, neither is my apartment. If you live in a place that doesn’t retain heat then it’s probably not insulated against pollutants either. An air purifier won’t come cheap, but it will keep the air in your home clean. Xiaomi seems to be the most popular brand and the purifiers they make are small, easily portable and come in stylish designs. Get one. Or five…
The newest Xiaomi air purifiers can supposedly purify your home in just 12 minutes by cleaning 406 square meters of air per hour and effectively covering up to 48 square meters. Although most wall heaters already have a flimsy filter in them to keep some of the nasty stuff out of your apartment (provided you actually clean/change them regularly), you should really have a purifier at home.
Other than PM 2.5, an air purifier will also get allergens, formaldehyde, animal fur, dust, pollen, smoke odors, benzene, 0.3 μm particles as well as other harmful chemicals out of the air. It can be a great device to have in any home, even if you don’t live in a polluted area.
When I said that you should consider getting five purifiers for your home, I wasn’t kidding. Our purifier is on all winter and gets moved to whichever room we are in. Ideally, we’d have one in each room and maybe two in our large 50 meter squared living room.
When you turn an air purifier on, it will automatically adjust its settings based on air quality. This past week, with the AQI over 250, it’s taken over an hour for ours to switch to a lower setting when it normally takes less than 15 minutes. At least the pollution in Shanghai doesn’t get nearly as bad as it does in Beijing, you can read about that here.
Just like with a mask, you need to regularly clean and/or change the filter for it to be effective. Like most things in China, air purifiers are smart and come with apps. If you sync your purifier to the app, it will automatically alert you when it’s time to replace your filter. The replacement process is easy, so there’s no excuse not to do it. Carbon filters lose effectiveness over time, even if you do your best to clean them. So it’s recommended that you buy a new one every six months.
I could complain about the bad insulation in my apartment all day and sometimes I do. But there are many simple ways to actually do something about it that don’t involve moving to a new place. Tape up or use the glass glue on cracks or just to reinforce the glass in your windows. There should not be a strong draft coming from your windows. Ever.
If you have two layered windows, stuff some foam in between the two layers around the frame. We used to do this in the “good old” days when I was little. It doesn’t look that great but it works wonders, trust me. It won’t just stop pollution from getting in, but it’ll help with heat retention and you’ll immediately notice the difference in your electricity bill.
Another solution is to get thick and heavy curtains. Just make sure to get a professional to come and install them. We have heavy curtains in the bedroom that are great insulators, but the flimsy hooks that keep it up are sagging and slowly destroying the wall. I’m just glad my husband’s the one who sleeps in their range of fall 😉
Finally, no matter how fancy your mask or air purifier is, they’re not effective if you don’t know when to use them. There are foggy days when pollution is at its lowest but people still wear masks because they don’t know better. There are also super sunny days that hide the pollution that is creeping in and killing you slowly – no exaggeration. Get an app on your phone that will show you the weather and pollution on your home screen. Or one that will alert you when pollution is high.
These apps can also show you the pollution forecast. So, check that too before you open all your windows and leave the house. One time I decided to air out my apartment because it was sunny and AQI was 80. I came home 6 hours later and choked in my 250 PM 2.5 apartment… It only takes a second to check the app and your lungs will thank you for it in the long run.
If you have any tips or stories to share related to pollution, don’t hesitate to post in the comments below!
Enjoy this video that shows you what an AQI of 250 really looks like!