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 can be a serious threat to your health as well.

If you’re planning to travel to China, especially in the winter months, you should be prepared and have some strategies to protect yourself.

Why is China so polluted?

One of the main reasons 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 surrounding 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, and some of the biggest cities are improving. 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 travel deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream.

This can cause long-term damage including asthma, heart disease and respiratory illnesses, and can lead to death. PM2.5 is therefore 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. PM2.5 concentration in China is more than six times above this level, though the figure fluctuates.

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?

Beijing used to be one of the most polluted cities, but not anymore. The government has made a concerted effort to bring down pollution there. However, some say the problem has just been shifted to other areas.

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

IQAir publishes a real-time ranking of the most polluted cities in China. As at April 2022, the worst offenders were:

  • Hotan, Xinjiang (west China)
  • Chengzihe, Heilongjiang (north China)
  • Taixing, Jiangsu (east China).

Xingtai and Baoding in Hebei province have traditionally been among China’s biggest polluting cities. That’s because there’s a large concentration of coal power plants there which help power this industrial area of the country.

Shijiazhuang pollution

Smog affecting Shijiazhuang, Hebei province. Image by Mate Dobos on Shutterstock.

Similarly, Shijiazhuang is home to heavy industry and is known for having poor quality air days. If you lived there, it would be the equivalent of smoking almost one cigarette a day according to Sh**t! I Smoke.

To find out how many cigarettes you’d be ‘smoking’ on a daily basis in China (or even in your own country), simply enter your city of choice on their site or download the app.

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 and regions that are worse.

India, central and northern Africa, and the Middle East all have major issues with air pollution. Online air pollution maps 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 is 2.4 cigarettes per day.

Compare this to the US, where the average is 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

It’s important to note though that these statistics are from August 2015 and air pollution has improved in all the major Chinese cities since then.

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.

Although the goal wasn’t met, air improvements have been achieved in Beijing and other parts of the country. But heavy pollution episodes are still common during autumn and winter, when so many people burn coal to keep warm.

Shanghai smog

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

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.

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 puts pressure on hospitals as the locals present for conditions like lung disease, heart disease and stroke.

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

How to protect yourself

Are you 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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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.

There are dedicated China apps for air quality you can download to check the forecasts.

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, Tianjin and Shijiazhuang (see the video below) especially if you have existing respiratory issues.

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

Stay indoors

On days when the pollution is high, limit your exposure by staying indoors and avoiding strenuous activities.

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

Get good quality face masks

You’ll see people wearing masks in China. But they’re usually to stop others getting sick, not screen out pollution.

So, be wary of masks for sale at local 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 face 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 masks are also good as they filter 99% of the particles that are .6 microns or larger.

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.

Have safe travels 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.