5 Unexpected Facts About Shanghai Pollution

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015 

under Health


Planning on hiding from the smog indoors? Or waiting till late to go for a jog when the pollution seems to be less? Think again, my friends…

We've all woken up with that familiar, tingling tickle in our sinuses. Last week, Shanghai's overachieving AQI soared into the 200s, and that sickly, sherbet orange glow in the smog has become the light formerly known as 'sun'; if we're so lucky to have it at all.

Of course, this is hardly news any more, and so-bad-you-can-taste-it levels of air pollution have become almost routine. But even though we have basically become one with the haze—taking it into our bodies, letting it course through our veins, and drain through our poisonous tears—it's crazy how little we really know about it.

When I started to research the issue a bit, I was amazed how many of the 'common-sense'—"Hmm, the air looks sort of less soupy,"—assumptions I had held about air pollution had been completely wrong. Here are five things that may surprise you about the smog in Shanghai:

1. Air can be worse indoors



A normal reaction to seeing clouds of cancer dust floating around outside is to slam your windows shut, bolt the door, and order enough waimai to survive a nuclear holocaust.

But according to a recent study by Tsinghua University, the PM2.5 levels inside your apartment might actually be up to three times worse than on the street.

How bad the air is inside your home depends on several things, such as what floor it is on, how far it is from the road, and whether you use an air purifier. But if – like me – you assumed that staying inside automatically protected you from the worst of the pollution outside, I'm afraid you've been sadly mistaken. Your home could be a hot box of stale cancer flakes.

2. Air is often worse at night



You'd think that the pollution should thin out in the evenings, after the rush hour is over and the city settles down.

Again, this turns out to be completely wrong. Quartz recently analyzed six years of data on air pollution in China, taken from the hourly updates published by US consulates in several major Chinese cities. They found that PM2.5 levels often rise at night.

In Beijing, for example, air pollution tends to peak around midnight, while in Shanghai there seems to be very little variation in the AQI throughout the day.

So if you're planning to go for a run, night is no better than day. You can run, but you can't hide from the industrial flatulence—silent and nocturnal, but deadly.


3. Shanghai's air is getting better



OK, so the air in Shanghai is pretty bad right now, but things are getting better, right? We're not just saying that to make ourselves feel better, right? Right?

The air is not getting better – or not yet, anyway.

According to Greenpeace, China's air has improved significantly this year as the government has started cleaning up the coal industry. Pollution levels in Beijing have dropped by an impressive 15% compared to 2014.

But this hasn't been the case in Shanghai, where PM2.5 levels have actually slightly increased this year.

If you're expecting to see cleaner air (or, rather, not to be able to see the air), don't hold your breath. Or do. Either way, you might suffocate.

4. Shanghai actually burns the most coal



We're used to hearing about all the pollution billowing from the power plants and home furnaces in northern provinces like Hebei and Shanxi. Shanghai also burns through its fair share of coal—and by 'fair share' I mean a ridiculous amount of coal.

According to Chai Jing's wildly popular documentary "Under the Dome", Shanghai burns ten kilograms of coal for every square meter of the city—more than any other metropolitan area in China. The mountains of burning coal feed the vast number of steel, power, and cement plants ringing the city. Cleaning up this heavy industry will go a long way towards tackling the city's pollution problem.

5. China's air isn't the worst in the world



China gets all the headlines, but the air here actually isn't the worst in the world. In fact, it's not even close.

According to data from the World Health Organization, the award for most toxic air goes to Karachi, Pakistan, where average ambient air pollution levels are double those in Beijing.

And Beijing didn't even get silver – it was comfortably beaten by Cairo, Egypt, where PM2.5 levels were around 20% higher on average.

When you look at it that way, Shanghai's average AQI of 56 doesn't seem too bad. And if you're a bit depressed after reading these last four points, I'll leave you on a – kind of – more upbeat note: at least we don't live in Pakistan!

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