How Poisonous the Air

How poisonous would the very air you breathe need to be to drive you away from a city you otherwise love? The question seems kind of absurd, but I would think it has become very real to the residents of Beijing (especially the non-locals).

From TeaLeafNation:

> So a 500 reading of particulate pollution was considered “crazy bad” and “beyond index”?

> Try 993. That is a reading recorded at a monitoring station in central Beijing on the evening of January 12, according to the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center.

Shanghai’s was something like 160 the other day, and we thought that was bad. 993 is kind of incomprehensible to me.

My family is currently planning to visit Beijing for Chinese New Year (and taking the baby), but this whole air pollution thing in Beijing is pretty scary…


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I left Taiwan reluctantly, one of the main reasons was the pollution. (Although some areas of Taiwan ate much much better than others)

  2. Usually, the air in Beijing at Chinese New Year is okay for the first few days, though much depends upon the driving restrictions (or lack of them) that are in effect at the time. Construction sites are shut down as are the factories, and for chu yi/chu er most folks are staying close to home, other than for wandering out for family visits. It’s actually a good time to be in Beijing, as long as you don’t feel the need to burn incense at any of the temples. By Day Four the air is generally mucked up again. But it all depends on the winds and thermal inversions. In other words, “usually” is subject to change.

  3. That was unusually bad, not normally bad, so you don’t need to worry too much.

  4. Recently read a good article on the topic – I was surprised how low a “bad” (not “crazy bad”) day’s health impact is relative to common vices that people have as daily habits. Of course, as a personal reassurance is one thing, but concern for your kid (even at that relatively low risk level) is still completely understandable.

  5. and whats amazing is that when I was in Beijing for the Olympics, the blue sky looked as clear to the eye as it is in my home of Texas. so its definitely possible for them to clean up the air, so how is it getting worse? I realize during the Olympics they simply shut down a lot of factories and limited car travel, but still – shouldnt the pollution be getting better not worse?

  6. Try visiting Urumqi in the winter. The smog gets so bad you can’t see out your window. It’s like “crazy bad” Beijing every day.

    Beautiful place in the spring/summer though. Definitely worth a trip.

  7. Be Safe

  8. In 2010, we had the same experience that someone else notes above — beautiful blue skies for most the the days around the Spring Festival. And the streets/subways were empty too. But once people came back to work, the air was thick enough to make my eyeball ache. It was fantastic while it lasted, though.

  9. jmnicklin Says: May 16, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    I was actually out and about in Beijing on the day in question. Visibility just walking down the street was pretty bad and needless to say, I came down with a cough a couple of days later. ‘Nuff said.

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