The most polluted city in the world?

Arriving in Beijing

After a super long flight we finally arrive in Beijing, China. Travel is a great way of changing your perspective on life, especially when travelling to an exotic or far away destination. Upon stepping out of the plane and onto the tarmac it becomes quickly apparent that the one thing we take for granted, the air we breathe has now become a precious commodity. So how does the air fair in the most polluted city in the world?


As you might know, the air pollution in China answers to no one. As soon as you step outside you are greeted with the side affects of a nation addicted to coal and 30 years of accelerated economic growth. The smell is hard to describe, but a sensation of swimming through a thick smoke, a dirty haze of ash, exhaust fumes, particulates, dust and god knows what else comes pretty close. This isn’t just western paranoia or woe is me, this a serious issue that pervades the second largest economy and the most populous nation on earth.

(FILES) This picture taken 18 July 2006
Cyclists passing through thick pollution from a factory in Yutian, 100km east of Beijing in China’s northwest Hebei province.

How bad is the air in Beijing?

It looks bad, but is it that bad? Data is our friend, with measurements from the US Embassy in Beijing the deadliest particulate, PM2.5 (super small nano particles) pose a significant threat to life here. Below shows the terrifying reality of the past couple of years, just 2 percent of days in Beijing between 2008 and 2015 were deemed ‘Good’. That’s just 51 days in eight years or a measly 7 days per year. Most days are rated as unhealthy, very unhealthy or hazardous, 77 percent of the time. On these days, physical activity must be reduced and health impacts, shortness of breath, headaches, tiredness are to be expected. The public health and economic implications are astronomical.

A typical day for air in Beijing

Today’s Beijing index reads 250, which ranks us firmly in the Very Unhealthy range. This index is compiled from real-world readings from the USA, Europe, China and Australia regions, you can check out your city here. For reference what we know about London and Paris as cities that constantly battle pollution, they can  often top the Moderate AQI (around 60-70). China blows that out the water, add another ‘200’ to that and you’re close. What does that look like? For one, we can’t see the sky. The smog curls around doorways and the still air fills the tiny lungs of newborns. It’s hard to breathe, is it jet lag or lack or sleep? What is this tightness in the chest? A few shallow breathes later, no improvement. You would have to be pretty ill advised to know this is really bad for your health.

Luckily by afternoon the smog recedes to a level where buildings appear into view beyond a few hundred meters. The visibility is still poor though, with an index of 150 this would be a national emergency anywhere else, but for Beijing this is a good day..

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Plan your trip

We’ll do another piece on air quality and China’s love for coal, but here’s our advice for visiting: For our short trip of 3 days to Beijing we chose not to wear a mask, rationalising that we are only spending a short time here. The classic question, to wear or not to wear? Spending more time in a polluted city or for sensitive groups such as young children or the elderly we found some good advice on which masks and cost

You can also sign up for @beijingair for hourly twitter alerts, allowing you to plan your indoor or outdoor time more effectively.





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