Photo: the Forbidden City on a good day .. yes, we do have them!
Some thoughts, based on 15 years as an expat in Beijing.
Should I come to Beijing at all?
The short answer is yes. For most people the opportunities here (financial, cultural, personal) outweigh the negatives of air pollution, real though these are. I will explain why in the following paragraphs.
Bottom line, what will the impact of Beijing air pollution be on my health and my family’s health?
Beijing air has lots of pollutants, but the risk to health is mainly from the PM2.5 (ultrafine particulates) component. See our page on Beijing air for more information on this. Combining air quality studies, the best estimate of the effect on overall life expectancy from breathing this air is that spending your whole life in Beijing in the city center might reduce your life expectancy by around 4 years (based on a meta-study published in the New England journal of medicine, see note at the bottom of this page, and assuming an average PM2.5 level of around 50 microgrammes per m3). This sounds like a lot, but consider that if your stay in Beijing is (say) 4 years, ie around 5% of your expected lifespan, the impact on your life expectancy will be proportionately reduced … to around 2-3 months. This average includes people who are more at risk than average because of other health issues, so if you are in good health the actual risk is probably lower. And as a well-educated and probably reasonably well-off expat you are in a good position to mitigate these risks further, a point I will return to.
Should I bring my family to Beijing?
The answer to this is also "yes", if you are in a position to do so, and especially if you will be here for a year or more. Separation imposes its own risks (including to physical health) on families, so consider being together as a health benefit in its own right. The effects of air pollution on younger children are mainly in (slightly) slowed lung development, but the effect is slight and children seem to catch up when away from polluted areas. Again, you are also in a position to mitigate the risks.
For families in Beijing there are huge cultural and educational benefits … kids growing up here are part of an international community, gain access to experiences their counterparts back home can only dream of. Schools here are generally excellent, especially the international ones.
Before you arrive: choice of place to live in Beijing: city or suburbs?
Most expats either live in the downtown parts of Beijing, mainly the Chaoyang district (NE corner of the city) or in the villa district to the north (Shunyi). Air quality is slightly better at Shunyi, on average, but the difference is not huge. Shunyi homes have the advantages of bigger yards (gardens), which is good for those with younger children, and there are a lot of international schools in this area. Against this, if the wage earner(s) are working downtown you will find that the commute is longish (around one hour in each direction is typical). There are also good schools in the Chaoyang area, and quality of life is good there too.
Minimizing commuting should be a first priority for everyone (adults and children) so pick your living spot with that in mind. This should take into account both place of work, and schools choice, and if at all possible it helps if these are in roughly the same area.
Pick an apartment or home that is not right next to one of the main roads (eg the ring roads). Even a separation of 500m is better than being right next to a main road. There is some evidence that air pollution from vehicles is more toxic when it is freshly emitted.
Look for apartments with double glazing and good window seals (especially downtown). This will also mean your apartment is less noisy. Depending on your budget, bear in mind that villas and apartments with very large open-plan living areas will require more investment in air purifiers to keep the air fresh.
Choosing a school in Beijing
When you are choosing a school, ask if they have air purifiers installed, where and how many. Ask them what their policy is for high-air pollution days. Most international schools have a well-thought out policy for coping with high pollution days.
When you arrive in Beijing: mitigating the risks
We suggest that you should (at minimum) have an air purifier in the room where you sleep, regardless of which part of Beijing you are living in. It also helps if you have a purifier in your living room too. Consult our air purifier models page for more information on how to choose purifiers. Torana also offers free home assessments (we check air quality, home layout and send you a report and recommendations). You are welcome to take advantage of this if you have recently arrived, or if you have been here for some time.
If you are commuting to work in a private car (either your own or a rented vehicle and driver) get a car air purifier.
Should I wear a mask in Beijing?
Masks are useful for some specific situations, and especially on days when the air pollution is particularly high (eg 200+ on the AQI scale):
When you are here
Keep an eye on daily air pollution figures. There are several phone apps available (ask colleagues about this, the best one depends on what kind of phone you have). Be aware of whether you are looking at air pollution figures from the US Embassy or the local China figures, since the risk-assessment scales are different. Some apps give both figures.
Once you have done what you need and what you can, relax and enjoy your time here. A stay in Beijing is a unique opportunity. You will find the quality of life here is good and you will make many friends. In a couple of year’s time you won't want to leave!
Chris Buckley / Summer 2015.