There are lots of stories about the pollution in China.

If you haven’t been there, then you might think that the stories are exaggerated.

But they aren’t.

The pollution in some Chinese cities is a serious problem and it’s a serious threat to your health as well.

So, if you’re planning to travel to China, you need to be prepared and have some strategies to protect yourself.

Why is China so polluted?

China has a big pollution problem and it’s not going away quickly.

One of the primary reasons for this is coal burning. China has a huge population of over 1.4 billion people at last count, and around two-thirds of the population are reliant on coal-burning power plants for electricity and heating.

China also has an enormous industrial sector, which only increases the problem.

In fact, the industrial area around Beijing and Tianjin in the north of the country is one of the most polluted areas in the world.

The air contains dangerous levels of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon emissions.

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What this means in real terms is that the sky in China is often a murky grey color. On the worst days in winter, some cities are swamped with a toxic, foul smelling chemical fog that covers everything in sight and makes it nearly impossible to see the sky at all.

Once you’ve experienced the smoggy streets like I have, you’ll see why people talk about the pollution in China so much.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. I’ll talk about how China’s tackling the problem further down.

The invisible killer

The real trouble is that it isn’t just the smog that’s causing problems. There are a variety of pollutants put out by coal burning and other industrial activities and most of them can cause serious health problems.

One of the most troubling pollutants is known as PM2.5. This is produced by combustion and consists of small, invisible airborne particles that can lodge in the lungs and cause long-term damage.

This pollutant is a huge problem for the health of the Chinese people and of the world.

Tianjin pollution

Grey skies in Tianjin. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

The World Health Organization has set a 10-microgram maximum of this pollutant for good health. However, China has a country-wide level of 35 micrograms, which is far above healthy levels.

In addition, ground-level ozone is invisible and levels have been increasing in recent times. It’s formed from chemical reactions between nitrogen oxides, which are released from power plants, vehicles, and industrial processes, and organic compounds which exist both in nature and are artificially created.

Ozone has so far resisted measures that have decreased the levels of other pollutants in China, and levels of this pollutant continue to climb in many Chinese cities.

What are the most polluted cities in China?

The worst cities have a strong industrial sector which pumps out a lot of pollution. They’re also in areas that become very cold in winter, hence the need for heating.

At last check, the most polluted cities in China are:

1. Xingtai

This is an industrial city in Hebei province, northern China with a population of around 7 million people. There are large coal factories in this city, making it one of the most polluted places in the world.

It has PM 2.5 levels of 128, when the recommended rate for health is 10.

2. Baoding

Located 93 miles (150 km) southwest of Beijing, this city contains numerous coal power plants. It has PM 2.5 levels of up to 126.

3. Shijiazhuang

Shijiazhuang is the largest city in Hebei and has a very strong heavy industry which is blamed for around 70% of the city’s pollution. The PM 2.5 levels reach 121 micrograms.

If you lived in one of these three cities, you’d be smoking the equivalent of at least four cigarettes a day!

Shijiazhuang pollution

Shijiazhuang on a bad day. Image by Mate Dobos on Shutterstock.

To find out how many cigarettes you’d be ‘smoking’ on a daily basis in China (or even in your own country), download the free Sh**t! I Smoke app.

If you’re not situated near an air quality monitoring station, results may not be 100% accurate but you should still get a basic idea by choosing the closest station.

Pleasingly, tourist-centric Beijing has recently dropped off the worst polluted cities list.

How does China compare with the rest of the world?

Although China is one of the world’s hot spots for pollution, there are many countries that are equally as bad or worse.

India, central and northern Africa, and the Middle East all have major issues with air pollution.

The World Health Organization has some interesting air pollution maps that show how various countries and regions compare.

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Thinking of air pollution in terms of the equivalent number of cigarettes you’d smoke in a day, Berkeley Earth found that the average in China was 2.4 cigarettes per day (as at August 2015).

Compare this to the US, where the average was 0.4 cigarettes per day.

Air pollution locationEquivalent in cigarettes per day
US, average0.4
EU, average1.6
China, average2.4
Beijing, average4.0
Beijing, bad day25.0
Shenyang, worst recorded63.0

What is China doing about the pollution?

China has recognized the pollution problem in its cities and is trying to take steps to reduce and ultimately eliminate the problem.

Chinese policymakers wanted to be pollution-free by 2020 and they implemented a variety of policies and changes to make this happen.

As Ecology and Environment Minister, Li Ganjie, stated during a government conference, good economic growth can’t exist in an unhealthy environment. This is a laudable attitude, but the ambition is proving to be more difficult than originally thought.

Shanghai smog

Shanghai smog. Image by Peggy and Marco Lachmann-Anke on Pixabay.

Since the changes were brought in, air improvements have been noted in Beijing and other parts of the country. However, observers are quick to point out that these improvements are limited and short-lasting.

Heavy pollution episodes are still common during autumn and winter, when so many people burn coal to keep warm.

So, is pollution in China getting better or worse?

As reported by a Beijing-based online news service, pollutants from coal-fired power plants dropped significantly between 2014 and 2017.

This was due to the introduction of an ultra-low emissions policy.

It limited emissions of three significant pollutants responsible for smog – sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and extremely fine particulate matter (PM 2.5 and 10).

Beijing bright blue sky

Beijing is no longer one of the most polluted cities in the world. Image by walter688 on Pixabay.

While an international research study has shown that environmental pollution in China as a whole has begun to decline, greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase.

This is a concern.

The health consequences of China’s pollution problem

The pollution in China does more than make some of its cities look unattractive. It’s also a clear threat to the health of everyone who breathes in the toxic fumes.

It’s estimated that the pollution in China causes over a million early deaths every year and costs the Chinese economy around 276 billion yuan a year. That’s around 40 billion US dollars.

Chinese woman on bike wearing face mask

The pollution in China has a big impact on people’s health. Image by Hitesh Choudhary on Pixabay.

It also destroys about 20 million tonnes of essential crops like wheat, rice, soybean and maize, putting pressure on its precious food chains.

The major health problems associated with air pollution are lung disease, heart disease and stroke – and that’s just to name a few.

It can even damage your reproductive system, give you headaches and lifelong asthma.

How to protect yourself

Heading to China soon?

Fortunately, there are some things you can do to stay healthy and help protect yourself from air pollution.

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1. Be aware of pollution levels

Air pollution levels change from day to day and some days are safer than other. So, keep an eye on the pollution levels in your city.

You’ll find them online, on TV shows, and there are also dedicated China apps for air quality you can download to check the forecasts.

2. Avoid the north of the country during winter

Air pollution is always worse in winter in northern China because people burn more coal to stay warm.

Steer clear of cities like Beijing and Tianjin, and especially Shijiazhuang (in the video below).

Coastal, southern cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong are generally pretty good most of the time.

3. Stay indoors

On days when the pollution is high, stay indoors as much as possible and avoid strenuous activities.

This is particularly important if you’re older or have asthma or other problems that compromise the health of your lungs.

4. Get good quality face masks

You’ll see people wearing masks in China. But they’re to stop spreading respiratory illnesses, not screen out pollution.

So, be wary of masks for sale at convenience stores as they may not filter out pollutants.

Woman wearing face mask

Consider bringing a pollution mask to China, just in case. Image by resprouk on Pixabay.

Bring masks from home, or look to buy some with a rating of N95. These ones filter 95% of particles that are .3 microns or larger.

FFP3 are also good as they filter 99% of the particles that are .6 microns or larger.

5. Shower regularly

Remember that you’re not just breathing in the air pollution. It’s getting in your hair and skin every time you step outside.

So, if you’re in a high risk area, make sure you shower once you get back indoors to remove all the toxins.

6. Eat well

Your body needs to be strong and healthy, so make sure you’re eating a balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables.

Especially in China, wash fruit and vegetables before you eat them.

What does the future hold?

Chinese President Xi Jinping recently promised China would start cutting its emissions within the next 10 years, and become carbon neutral by 2060.

But with more than 200 new coal-fired power stations planned or under construction, China has a mammoth job ahead of it.

Dalian city square

Will China’s plan to go carbon neutral work? Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

It will somehow have to wean itself off its addiction to coal and massively increase its renewable energy capacity to become carbon neutral by 2060.

One such project being looked at is a huge hydroelectricity dam in rural Tibet.

The plan is so ambitious that it could produce three times as much power as the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

But like most mega projects, there are social and ecological concerns associated with the new dam, as well as geopolitical risks with neighboring countries.

Why prevention is key to surviving the pollution in China

China has a serious problem with pollution at the moment, and it’s something that will be an ongoing problem for the foreseeable future.

As a tourist or as an expat, there isn’t much you can do about it except protect yourself the best you can.

Hopefully the Chinese government’s plan to become carbon neutral will work.

Safe travels in China!

I hope you liked my blog about the pollution in China. If you’re heading to China soon, don’t forget to get a VPN so you can access the internet in China. There’s a great review of the best VPNs for China here.

Disclaimer: This information is of a general nature only and should not be substituted for professional medical or scientific advice. Speak with a doctor about your individual health needs for China.