Experiencing Shanghai’s Airpocalypse

Last week was a very bad week to be in Shanghai. We had the worst pollution here, ever, as far as I can gather. There are lots of different numbers thrown around, but pretty much everyone agrees that the PM2.5 count went above 500 last Friday (December 6, 2013). Just to put that “500” in perspective:

> WHO guidelines say average concentrations of the tiniest pollution particles – called PM2.5 – should be no more than 25 microgrammes per cubic metre. Air is unhealthy above 100 microgrammes and at 300, all children and elderly people should remain indoors.

My favorite tool for following pollution levels is the Graphing Air Pollution in China page at kopf.github.io/chineseair/. Here’s a screenshot highlighting the peak last Friday (Shanghai in red, Beijing in blue):

Shanghai Air Pollution

By coincidence, I went outside on Friday night (close to the peak) to pick up some milk at the store. It’s a 5-minute walk to the nearest Family Mart. As soon as I stepped outside into the haze, I noticed that the air smelled faintly burnt. I say “faintly,” but it’s the kind of “faintly” that gets incredibly obvious the more you smell it. Meanwhile, the air just felt grimy. Beijing has had some terrific pollution in its day, but Beijing air tends to stay quite dry. Shanghai, meanwhile, is incredibly humid. It makes summers super sweltering, winters bone-chilling, and smoggy days absolutely disgusting.

I’m actually not very sensitive to the pollution, and when people ask me how bad it is, I don’t have a lot to say. It just doesn’t bother me that much. This latest uber-smog, though, got to me. In the 5-minute walk to the store, I started to feel a little queasy. In the 5-minute walk back home, I was feeling sick to my stomach.

So yeah, it was really bad. If it was like this every day, or even routinely, I wouldn’t want to live here anymore. I seriously hope China can take effective measures against this horrific pollution. Right now I’m seriously looking forward to my Christmas trip to Florida. Besides the precious family time, I could also use a little lung detox.

Shanghai Smog


John Pasden

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


  1. Glad I am at the Gold Coast John.

  2. What amazes me is that it wasn’t even just Shanghai, but the entire east-central part of the country that was beseiged by the pollution last week. Here in Zhangjiagang our skies are almost always blue, and I often brag to people back home that I live in the “cleanest city in China” (for whatever that’s worth). Yet even we had smog so thick on a couple days that I could barely see the buildings across the street from my home. It makes me that much prouder to ride my bike to work everyday; we all need to do our own little parts to keep this world clean.

    With the air that bad however I also found myself wondering if I was sacrificing my own health in the name of cutting my contribution to pollution. I get a thrill out of the chaotic morning bike commute though so I think it’s worth it anyway.

  3. Gotham.

  4. And to think that we went into that yuk to visit you that day!
    Our guestimate is that 1-2% of the people on the street wear face masks tha time of year, but on that day, with many fewer people on the street, easily 40% had masks on, including us.
    Didn’t keep us from feeling terrible, though.

    Today, back in the US, people are complaining about the cold. But look at the air, we tell them, little puffy clouds in a bright blue sky. It is so beautiful, who cares about the cold?

  5. My sister bought some inexpensive air purifiers for her apartment from here: http://smartairfilters.com/#data

    It seems to be an interesting operation – kudos to them for trying to keep clean air affordable in China.

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