Let’s make the annual airpocalypse *fun*

Let’s make air pollution fun. I need your ideas.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) runs 0-500. I want to make hitting 300, 400 and 500 fun — like make a drinking game or something. (But, you know, not an actual drinking game, of course… I do want to remember my Januarys in China…)

Here’s what the numbers really mean:

  • Below 50 = Sane
  • 100 = Pretty Bad
  • 150 = Daddy, the air tastes funny
  • 200 = I’d rather eat a donkey again
  • 300 = Dude, where’s my car?
  • 400 = The sun doesn’t hurt my eyes anymore
  • 500 = AIRPOCALYPSE!

aqi_app_screenshotThe AQI determines when we turn on our D.I.Y. air purifiers, wear masks, and don’t let the kids play outside. In the screenshot, the first location is our area of Qingdao. The bottom two are where I grew up in Canada.

Why? Because an important part of living healthily here (is that a word?) — emotionally, I mean — is responding positively and constructively (or at least creatively) to negative things. Routinely complaining about stuff just makes you feel worse and conditions your character in ugly ways. Gallows humour might not be the best response, but it’s at least one step up from whining, right? ;)

It’s hardest to maintain healthy thought habits in January — the cold, dry, grey, dog days of winter between Christmas and the end of Chinese New Year — because homesickness is peaking (all those Skype calls and Christmas photos from far away), everyone has cabin fever, and the air pollution is at its perennial worst.

But I sense potential for fun here. At 300, everybody has to… what? At 400? At 500 what do we get to do?

Why do China and the US report conflicting air pollution numbers?

The air pollution app we use just did a major update. We can now track cities outside of China, and also choose Chinese or American Air Quality Index standards:USAvChinaAQIreporting
It’s not just that each country characterizes pollution levels differently (China’s “Moderately Polluted” = America’s “Unhealthy”), they’re calculating their AQI differently. The Air Quality Index number is what the average person uses to gauge the pollution level. These screenshots show China and the U.S. arriving at different AQIs, even though they’re dealing with the same pollution data:

American_Beijing_AQI China_AQI_Beijing

The Global Times, China’s English language international mouthpiece, explains it this way:

Qiu Qihong, an engineer of the Beijing Environmental Monitoring Center, said US and China use the same function to determine AQI figures from six different pollutants. However, he explained that the UStates uses a stricter system to determine what numbers to plug into the AQI formula. The formula requires a range of values of PM2.5 to calculate the number, and the US and China are using different ways to determine this range.

Qiu explained, “The US uses a stricter system because their society is further along in the industrialization process.”

This is why when PM2.5 density is transferred to AQI figures, the two countries have different readings, Qiu said.

For example, according to the standards published by both countries, if the PM2.5 density reaches 15.4 micrograms per cubic meter, according to US standards, the matching AQI figure is 50. But under Chinese standards, the density needs to reach 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

We usually turn on our DIY air purifiers when the AQI hits 200 (though the one in the kids’ bedroom is always on whenever the windows are closed). We can usually smell and/or see an AQI of 75 by China’s calculations.

Pollution Progress?

The last few days air pollution levels have hovered around 300, and since yesterday afternoon they’ve been solidly over 300. That’s nothing special, but the response I’ve noticed this time around is different. We heard about pollution safety from three different sources (friends, work, neighbours) all in the same day. Before people would either ignore it or pretend it was “fog.”

Apparently 300 is the magic number. Today was the first time our Chinese preschool has ever cancelled outdoor activities and shut all the classroom windows because of pollution (“haze/smog” 雾霾). They usually keep the windows open even when it’s cold for health reasons, so this time they’ve judged (or someone with authority judged) that the air outside is a bigger health threat than having closed windows. I had nothing to do with it. And that’s not the only thing.

Our Chinese friends have reminded us to wear masks when we go out — for the pollution, not for the “cold” (many Chinese wear “mouth covers” 口罩, usually cloth, to keep “cold wind” 寒风 from getting into their stomachs and causing Chinese medicine-related ailments). I was biking back home Tuesday night next to a neighbor, and he was actually wearing a pollution mask. That’s probably the first time I’ve ever talked to a Chinese person who was wearing a mask for pollution.

This is all a big change from what we’re accustomed to here, where people (and weather reports!) were happy to note the “fog” () with nary a mask in sight despite the fact that outside smelled and looked like the inside of a tailpipe. It’s helped that the Americans installed their own monitoring equipment on the roof of their embassy in Beijing, broadcast the hourly readings over the internet via smartphone apps, and caused a P.R. ruckus when an exceptionally Dickensian day triggered a “Crazy Bad” reading. If the anecdotes I encountered today are any indication, it seems like the days of air pollution denial are over.

I still can’t believe they closed the windows…!

About Chinese air pollution:

About Chinese medicine:

Foreign baby in China essentials: DIY AIR PURIFIERS

(It’s been a while since I cried on the blog about China’s air pollution. But this time we have a solution! Your salvation is at hand…)


Out our windows in Tianjin.

Our first child spent her first month outside the womb in neonatal intensive care. We brought her to China as a 4-month-old. As soon as we’d landed in Beijing the passengers sitting around us started muttering about “…污染…!” because the smog made it hard to see the terminal from the plane. Part of me wanted to take our little preemie right back to Canada.

Air purifiers were on our original list of Foreign Baby in China Essentials (along with imported formula, VPNs and friendly stranger finger shields). But I never wrote the air purifiers post because we quickly discovered that air purifiers are insultingly expensive.

Instead we moved to a less polluted city. But triple-digit air pollution is still not uncommon in Qingdao (you can see and smell anything over 100), and we do get the occasional 400 or 500+ days. Here’s what 172 looks like on a cloudless day in our neighbourhood (that mountain on the left should be crystal clear):

It’s always bothered me that we weren’t doing anything about the air aside from an outrageous amount of air-friendly house plants, especially for our kids. But thanks to PhD student Thomas Talhelm, now we can. Why I did not think of this myself I’ll never know. That’s the Fulbright scholar difference, I guess.


(Click for a larger view.)

DIY AIR PURIFIERS

If you can handle between $200 to $2000+ per room for commercial air purifiers, yay for you. But that’s tough to swallow for middle class peasants people like us, despite the real worry of raising young children in truly dystopic air quality. Thankfully, it’s cheap and easy to build your own air purifiers that apparently work at least as well.

CHEAP
Buy a pre-assembled kit from Mssr. Talhelm for .. wait for it … 33 bucks (200元). Or get the filters and fans yourself on taobao (if you have taobao kungfu like Jessica) for 50元 less per unit. We’ve made four.

EASY
Buying the kit is obviously the most convenient way to go. But either way, a monkey could assemble these things. All you have to do is stick a HEPA filter onto the front of a fan. See how to build one here and here. You need: a fan, pliers/scissors, HEPA filter, and a strap.

WORKS
“But but but… with DIY purifiers you don’t get the monitoring electronics or the aesthetics or the ionizer or all the other things we’re selling that you didn’t know you needed!” Ok, but do they work? The proles People like us are willing to sacrifice peripherals to save hundreds of dollars.

According to the results of Talhelm’s tests, which are easily reproducible for anyone who doesn’t trust people who sell things (if anyone does do their own tests please let me know!), our $25 air purifiers perform as good and possibly even better than commercial units where it counts.


(Click for the full test results.)

Despite what the high prices suggest, air purifiers aren’t magic. They blow the air in your room through a filter. It’s not like doing rocket science or trying to figure out how to make your 4-year-old not get up to pee 500 times a night.

Here’s one of ours, which cost $25:

‘If there is hope,’ wrote Winston, ‘it lies in the proles.’

About China’s apocalyptic air quality:

About having a Foreign Baby/Kid in China:


(Click to get the free China Air Pollution app.)