BEIJING—No one would call Beijing a healthy city.
Cars, bikes, motorcycles, rickshaws and carts speed up as pedestrians scamper across the street.
Eating and drinking present a continual risk, with regular news reports about people getting sick from tainted milk, contaminated pork, adulterated noodles, rice, watermelons, bean sprouts, wine.
But the biggest worry for many is the city’s abysmal air pollution, so bad on some days that residents can taste it and the airport occasionally shuts down as thick smog obscures the runways.
One man has taken up the quixotic job of understanding what Beijing’s epic air pollution means for human health. Dr. Richard Saint Cyr, a family practitioner, runs an English-language website called My Health Beijing, which explores a range of health issues including food safety, traditional Chinese medicine, hepatitis, cell phone towers, childhood obesity, and just about any matter that keeps a fretful urbanite up at night.
The hottest topic on his site by far, though, is air pollution in the city called “the Big Gray.” Not long ago, Saint Cyr posted an article calculating the actual harm of Beijing air. He wrote:
“One of life’s great mysteries is finally answered: ‘living in polluted City XYZ is equivalent to smoking how many cigarettes a day?’ ….. I’ve been asked that question many times by patients and by the media — and now I know what to tell them: a day in Beijing is like smoking one sixth of a cigarette. More specifically, on an average day in Beijing an average adult inhales a total of 1.8mg of PM2.5 particles from air pollution, which is 1/6 of the average 12mg of PM2.5 particles inhaled from an average cigarette. Yes, that’s a very strange number, but if I’ve done the math correctly, it is indeed true.”
In an interview, Saint Cyr says calculating that information was “strangely reassuring. I actually felt a little bit better about living here.”
But the truth is that his estimates—which he based on public health research, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing’s hourly data measuring particulate matter of 2.5 micrograms in diameter or less, and the accepted data on the effects of air pollution on heart disease and lung cancer—still suggest that all Beijing residents are, in effect, cigarette smokers, however moderate.
Saint Cyr has also calculated the effects of Beijing’s “beyond index” days, which occur when the meter goes above 500 particulates per cubic meter. This is the number that the U.S. Embassy accidentally described as “crazy bad” in 2010, a cause for endless jokes, tag lines, and commentary.
Crazy bad days, according to Saint Cyr, are the equivalent of 75 percent of one cigarette a day. “So if you don’t smoke and you are really healthy, it is something to think about,” he admits, although he argues that the health effects of being overweight and inactive are far worse than a little air pollution. “My overall theme is that people, if they’re freaking out about air pollution and they’re five or ten kilograms overweight, they’re really missing the point about their relative risks, what they’re gonna die of,” he says.
At the same time, Saint Cyr acknowledges that mortality from air pollution is a problem in Beijing. Lung cancer, heart disease, and strokes all rise in polluted cities like Beijing. In China, the individual risk might not be significant but because of the size of the population, the pollution could mean that “hundreds of thousands die prematurely,” he says.
Air quality in Beijing isn’t expected to improve any time soon, but the transparency of reporting took a great leap forward just before the lunar new year, when the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center started to publish its own 2.5 particulate matter readings. On his website, Saint Cyr compared the readings from the U.S. Embassy and the Chinese, and found that the numbers were comparable. That’s a dramatic improvement over the city’s earlier monitoring system, which limited itself to a daily report on larger particulates of 10 micrograms and had the audacity to claim that there were 286 “blue sky days” in 2011.
The city started reporting its findings just in time to get one that nearly broke the charts. After a riotous, hours-long celebration heralding the Year of the Dragon that began after dark on Jan. 23, the number peaked at 1,593 micrograms of particulate matter, almost all of it sulfur dioxide from the explosions.
On “hazardous” days and nights like that one, Richard Saint Cyr advises wearing a face mask outside the home and using air purifiers inside. That, and “you pray for the wind in Beijing.”