Shanghai has never had much of an issue with smog in the nearly 4 years we have been here. Yes there are a few random days where the air quality has not been great, but until last year we hadn’t really experienced how bad it could be. Read about that here. Beijing has a reputation for bad air. It is explained since Beijing is in more of a valley bad air gets trapped, along with dust from the deserts to the west. Luckily Shanghai’s geography has worked to its benefit. Being along a river delta and close to the sea winds blow away much of the bad air. With the bad smog last winter and this past week the poorer than normal quality has been blamed on stagnant air, little wind, weather patterns and factories or farmers with excessive burning raising levels to new all time highs. This is according to many news agencies using Reuters as its source.
All I know is what I can read, see, smell, feel and taste and it was bad this past week. For the most part we have had warmer than usual temperatures until early November. When many people start to put on the heat and days are dark longer the levels typically rise. Much of China’s hydro and electricity comes from coal fired plants. Since Shanghai is more of a temperate climate with lows not getting much below freezing, although the dampness and chill factor make it feel much colder, houses are not centrally heated. We have a large unit on the wall of the main rooms of the house that are for heating and cooling. They run on electricity. When the colder temperatures arrive the pollution level takes a jump.
For the past 2-3 weeks the levels have hovered around 150 for the PM 2.5 levels. The 2.5 levels are the particle size and they are the nasty ones that can get into the lungs and therefore travel to other parts of the body. They can cause the most harm with long term exposure over months or years. Additionally, it is based on 24 hour exposure hoping a few minutes or hours are not as health threating. When levels are over 200 we do not allow the children out for recess, even the shorter 20 minute breaks. The World Health Organisation states levels over 20 are not acceptable. This September and August Shanghai levels ranged in the 20-50 range. Once the levels rose higher, over 150, I noticed daily headaches that I can’t seem to get rid of. If I am outside for longer periods I often get a nosebleed. Last year I had numerous sinus infections and twice had laryngitis. The doctor said the pollution was causing irritations in my body and I needed to take precautions and drink lots of water. I started to wear a little mask on bad air days. At work we have air purifiers that run non stop. All this helps keep us as safe as we can.
This past week things changed and levels soared, as you may have seen on the news. Levels went from 200-250 early in the week to 300+. Headaches and itchy or watery eyes seemed the norm, masks were the new fashion accessory and must have. Some schools decided to close, while others continued to keep children inside and cancel any outdoor sports. Local schools had to be told they also needed to keep children indoors this week. International schools started putting this policy in place last year when air quality diminished, but local schools had not. By Friday all time records were broken and early Friday morning levels reached 590 according to the website I check. By 6AM levels were at 508. It looked dusky out and the sun was not more than an orange smudge that you could look at without squinting. The smell in the aire was acrid and smokey which caused my nose to tingle. My lips felt numb and my eyes wanted me to rub them nonstop. My mouth felt funny like my tongue was gross and I had forgotten to brush my teeth. I had yest another headache. At work we closed and sealed as much as we could and kept the air cleaners going at full speed. This didn’t even seem to help as eventually the bad air creeped into any quickly opened door or crack. Things looked hazy inside hallways, like you forgot to clean your glasses and they were smudged. Inside the classrooms it was better, but I turned the air cleaner on full just in case. Levels went back up to the mid 500’s and action needed to be taken.
Comparrison of the same view of the Shanghai skyline. The second (on right side)taken before a bad rainstorm a few weeks ago where pollution levels were reasonable. The other, on the left, was taken Dec. 6th, 2013 when levels were mid 200’s. I zoomed in closer trying to catch an outline of the tallest buildings, but they are invisible in this pic. This photo doesn’t even show the all time high reached Friday Dec 5th where we could barely see the plaza just beyond the hotel on the left side of the one photo. When levels are high it feels like you are in a fog and you strain to see things you know are there, but no longer can see.
According to the Shanghai Daily Newspaper on Friday the Government halted construction, pulled up to 30% of government vehicles off the road and asked factories to reduce or stop production to help. During bad level days fireworks are also banned. By Saturday levels returned to the 200’s after the short-term fix. Earlier today, Sunday, levels were finally under 200. A thick fog moved in overnight as temperatures went from seasonal low teens to 18-20c. The levels are now back over 200 possibly as result of the earlier fog trapping in more bad air. Part of my regular daily routine has become checking the pollution websites as much as I check the weather. Let’s hope soon this will pass and Shanghai can again breathe easy.