I packed a pair of sunglasses, but I didn’t have to wear them during our two-day visit to Beijing. When the sun could be seen, it looked like a fuzzy orange orb trying to burn its way through a thick layer of haze over the city – the unfortunate byproduct of China’s spectacular economic growth.
Reliable data about air pollution can be hard to come by in China. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing has set up its own monitoring station on the roof of its compound and reports its air quality readings via Twitter. The embassy monitors tiny particles – less than 2.5 micrometers – that are considered to be the most dangerous pollutants because they are small enough to get into the lungs and blood stream. A major source of the particles is car and truck exhaust as well as factory smokestacks and energy plants.
On our last morning in Beijing, the embassy described the air quality as “very unhealthy” with PM2.5 levels at 226. In such conditions, people are advised to avoid prolonged or heavy exertion, and children, older adults and people with heart or lung disease are advised to avoid outdoor activity.
Sometimes the embassy describes the levels of PM2.5 as being “off the index,” meaning the pollution is so high its off the charts.