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Is Breathing Beijing Air Like Smoking a Pack a Day?

(2008-03-07 21:11:53)
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杂谈

An article for the April 2008 issue of That's Beijing:

 

The Claim: Breathing Beijing’s Air is Like Smoking a Pack of Cigarettes a Day

 

It’s another day biking down Jianwai, and I can’t see the CCTV tower in front of me.

 

Will I regret spending my mid-twenties sucking a Fukang exhaust pipe when I’m dying of cancer in my fifties?

 

After reading a speculation that breathing Beijing’s pollution is like smoking a pack a day, I decided to get the facts from Dr. Will Chickering of Beijing United Family Hospital.

 

The up-shot? It’s not that bad.

 

The Facts: “It’s more like living with someone who smokes a pack a day,” observes Dr. Chickering.

 

The most dangerous air pollution appears to be exhaust from vehicles, particularly in the form of fine particles that can penetrate deeply into the lung, causing lasting cardiac and respiratory effects. (This is not the ozone that the Olympic athletes are worried about, with its irritant but reversible effects.) People with preexisting cardiac and respiratory conditions (including those who have them unknowingly) are at highest risk. Some children are at risk for asthma, as are adolescents for stunted lung growth.

 

Since we know the big risk is from car exhaust we can calculate our odds with some certainty: the risk of irreversible health effects is mostly a factor of the time we spend within 150 meters of major roadways.

 

One study shows that 20 years of air-pollution exposure is only 3% as bad as smoking a pack a day, while another study, concentrating particularly on people who live next to a highway, found that the risk was much higher, about 40% as bad as smoking a pack a day.

 

But even these numbers can seem worse than they are. Consider the mortality rate. One study found an "aging effect" of 2 1/2 years attributable to long-term exposure. For a group of 40 year olds living near a major road this means their death rate is that of a group of 42.5 year olds who live further away. About 1 in 1000 will die early. For 70 year olds who die at the rate of 72.5 year olds, about 1 in 90 will die early. And that is from 10-20 years exposure, longer than most expats will stay in Beijing.

 

I'll take a deep breath.

 

The bottom line: The risks of living in Beijing are real, but small, and to a degree avoidable. The best thing you can do is spend less time in traffic or near major roads. If you are in one of the high risk groups, consider a bedroom HEPA air-purifier.

 

For more suggestions on how to reduce risk, check out Dr. Chickering’s article in March’s urbane at urbanechina.com.

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