December 08, 2013

Which has Worse Air? A Hazy Airport Smoking Lounge or a Major Chinese City?

Sometimes you learn a fact that is just stunning.   The poor air quality of Chinese cities is well known, but here is an amazing piece of informaton.  The amount of small particulates in the air in major Chinese cities last week was WORSE and sometimes MUCH WORSE than smoking lounges in airports.

You know those smoking lounges.  Laden with smoke--you start coughing if you enter one. Hazy.

Recently, the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) did a study of the particulate levels in major airport smoking lounges.  They reported the amount of small particles of less than 2.5 microns (millionth of a meter) in size.  These kinds of particles are particularly dangerous because they are small enough to move deep into the lungs.  The result is lessened lung function, asthma, and even death for vulnerable groups exposed long enough.  Nasty stuff.

The study found that the average airport  lounge had a particulate level of 188.7 micrograms per cubic meter. The average small particle level in the four smoking-permitted bars and restaurants was 276.9 micrograms per cubic meter.   Contrast that to the average level in smoke-free airports: 8 micrograms per cubic meter.   Or our air right now in the Northwest, say Queen Anne Hill in Seattle (graphic below).   You can see that this month that the small particle levels there ranged by from around 2 to 14 micrograms per cubic meter.  EPA regulations say that U.S. cities are out of attainment for air quality if the small particulate level is above 12 micrograms per cubic meter averaged over a year.

Now prepare to be shocked.  Here is a snapshot of the small particulate levels at some Chinese cities yesterday.  Many were over 300 micrograms per cubic meter at that time....WORST than the smoking lounges or the smoky bars.  And it is worse than that.  Earlier this week Shanghai got over 600 micrograms per cubic meter.

Think about that...more than twice as polluted as a horrible airport smoking lounge.  No wonder Ambassadar Locke wants to get his family out of there.  Can't blame him.

To get some intuition about the problem, here are pictures of Shanghai during a clean period and this week.  You can guess which one is which.

There are many reasons to try to reduce the use of fossil fuels, but certainly the air quality implications of burning oil and coal are some of them.  China can do a great deal to clean up their atmosphere (including burning cleaner fuels and insisting on more pollution controls).  But they need energy to support their growing economy and improvement of the living standards of their people, and non-carbon energy sources (e.g., hydro, nuclear, wind, solar) will have to take on a larger role.  This air pollution is taking a horrible toll on the health of the Chinese people.

Thanks to Professor Joel Thornton for noting to me the smoker's lounge vs. China air pollution equivalence.


  1. A comparison I'd be interested in seeing is between a major Chinese city now and major Western cities in the 19th through mid-20th centuries.

  2. Contrary-wise, more coal builds industry, building more wealth, building a middle class demanding cleaner air.

    It happened here.

  3. If we sell coal to China it should only be burned in facilities that conform to current US EPA standards.

  4. Bad air? Well, China is young in that regard, and as typical repeats the excesses of youth, as related by Doyle--"we saw the greasy, heavy brown swirl still drifting past us and condensing in oily drops upon the windowpanes" (in the Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, describing a "dense yellow fog")--or the Great Smog of '52 that killed so many. Foreign particulars must however not distract from addictions at home. Take a stroll across University Bridge and then down along Eastlake, around five or six in the afternoon, on a weekday, and enjoy the sights and sounds and smells of Americans shooting up on Carbon. In a hopeful sign, some wear patches (those wee little cars), though most remain too weak to walk, or where willing cannot, trapped by a system that demands drivers--and who wants to be cold and wet, and have their feet hurt, anyways? Inject that Carbon, and enjoy the rush of sweeping through the streets on high--like Ixion, slaves to their wheels.


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