Battle Shanghai’s Pollution: How to Stay Healthy

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:

mask 1mask 2mask 3mask 4mask 6mask 7

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!


Wasting Plastic: China & Recycling

China is ahead of the Western world in many ways but is still trying to catch up in others. Wasting plastic in combination with not recycling may be the most baffling thing about the country that is so desperately trying to improve it’s pollution situation. While China has taken many effective steps to reduce pollution, it could do so much more.

Like most people educated in west, I had “reduce”, “re-use”, “recycle” drilled into my head from an early age. When I lived with my parents, I would get scolded by my father for not taking the paper labels off plastic bottles when I recycled them. He would even scrub every glass , carton and plastic container religiously before recycling.

We were also big on re-using and up-cycling. Our kitchen counter was overflowing with bags that we could use again and again until they fell apart. My impressive collection of pens, pencils and markers was stored in cut and spruced up milk cartons and plastic containers. My father was as obsessed with buying expensive office supplies as he was with keeping anything that could be re-used. China could learn a lot from him…

Chinese stores are obsessed with plastic bags. When you buy fruit or vegetables, for example, you have to beg them not to put each one in a separate bag. If you ask for the price sticker to be stuck directly on an eggplant, they will look at you like you’re crazy. Just the other day, my husband came home frustrated for having to argue with vendors. Isaac managed to save five bags on one shopping trip. What if every single Chinese shopper did that? BILLIONS of bags could be saved DAILY.

Online shopping, which I am addicted to because of my newly discovered crafting obsession, is always bittersweet. Everything is in an individual bag, in a larger bag, covered generously in bubble wrap, sometimes wrapped in cardboard and finally taped shut in a box. Even items that are unbreakable. Every delivery results in a huge pile of stuff that could be recycled but won’t, just because we’re in China.

Fortunately, we live in a small village and a lot of people here are very poor. Some make extra money by collecting cardboard and selling it for pennies. We leave all our re-usable items, cardboard and glass next to the trash and everything disappears immediately. So I guess hope isn’t lost completely, but China could really step it up!

*The photo is from Isaac’s classroom. He’s trying to teach 26, six year old children about recycling!

China Problems: Air Pollution & Thirst

No bottled water + bad air pollution = health dilemma.

Sometimes it feels like China is taunting me. Today I woke up coughing which usually means that pollution levels are high. Normally this is when I shut all the windows and hide in my badly insolated apartment. I don’t know why we haven’t bought any air purifiers yet… Anyway, today we happen to be out of bottled water.

No bottled water means a trek to a convenient and cheap water dispenser. It is absolutely not possible to drink tap water. It’s bad enough to shower in it, so we have special filters that make water pressure horrible but keep our skin from getting dry and my hair from falling out.eww

Going to get water is a pain in February even when it’s just cold outside. But today, getting clean water is outright dangerous. Right now the AQI is 177 which is pretty bad. An AQI between 151 and 200 is dangerous for sensitive groups and unhealthy for just about everyone.

I grew up in Prague which is said to be the most polluted city in Europe. I never had asthma or any other problems and I never even noticed when the air got bad. Since moving to China, everything changed. I got very sick with bronchitis on a trip to Beijing and although all my other symptoms got better, my cough never went away. Any time the air quality is over 150, I’m coughing and wheezing unless I drink ridiculous amounts of water.

chinaThe AQI levels in Shanghai are usually worse than in Huaqiao, and right now their pollution levels are at 190. This doesn’t seem too much higher than here, but if it goes up by just 10 more then everyone, even non-sensitive people, may experience serious health effects. At 200 you can taste that something is wrong with the air!

The highest AQI that I’ve ever experienced was 350 on a random November day in Shanghai. When we arrived in the city it was already 200 but it only took 2 hours for it to skyrocket. It was hard to breathe and almost everyone around us pulled out their masks. We went to see the famous view of the financial center from the Bund but it was barely even visible. Anything over 300 is considered “hazardous” and a health warning is issued.

This year, one city in the north of China near Beijing experienced an AQI of over 1,000. They weren’t able to see two meters in front of them: schools and flights were canceled. You can read more about it here. It must be strange growing up in China where instead of snow days, school is canceled because of pollution. Can you imagine getting excited about the air being unbreathable?

Speaking of school being canceled… one middle school principle didn’t seem to care that the pollution was so bad and he forced 400 students to take a test outside! Fortunately he was quickly fired, but some of those children may be effected by his mistake for the rest of their lives. You can read about that here.

A great pollution detecting app is There are plenty of mobile apps too that you can have right next to your weather app… and yes, these apps have air quality forecasts up to a week in advance. It’s pretty bizarre! But so is life in China.

This year pollution levels in the Czech Republic and several US cities reached an AQI of 200. If you’re in a city where this can happen, I strongly recommend buying a mask and wearing it. It looks dumb, but it’ll prevent a lifetime of coughing. Speaking of which, I need to stop making excuses, put on my mask and go get some water before I cough up a lung. Wish me luck!


Behind the Scenes in China: The G20 Effect

What happened to locals (and expats) living in China during the G20 Summit?

The air was clean but the internet was slow – #thanskobama. Everyone heard about the political drama involving Obama’s arrival and how China signed the Paris Agreement on climate change. But less people know how the G20 effected China and its residents.

On September 1st the government shut down factories to improve air quality and reduce pollution. Skies were blue and running outside was less painful throughout China. This was probably the only positive change.

Lots of people in Hangzhou (and factory workers throughout China) got holidays in hopes that they would leave town and make it less crowded. This raised the price of flights and train tickets and sent crowds of people to other cities all over the country. Luckily the population of Hangzhou is only around 2.5 million.

Perhaps it was all the people on holiday browsing the world wide web that slowed down all the internet in China for over a week. Some people, however, blame the government, assuming that they were monitoring the exchange of information following the Summit. But who knows, right?

Shortly after G20 there was lots of construction that had previously been delayed. I had to spend two days without electricity or water between 7 AM and 5 PM. The worst part was, the notice was in Chinese so I completely missed it and ended up un-showered in an internet café all day. Not fun.

Everything went back to normal about a week after all the presidents and foreign officials left China. The internet was fast (for China), the familiar smog was back and my apartment had electricity again! The G20 brought many great chances to the world that you can read about here. I just hope the next one wont’ interfere with my ability to Facebook – just kidding!