by Louisa Lim
December 7, 2011
On the way to school, my kids and I play a guessing game: How polluted is the air today? We use an app linked to the air pollution monitor at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and we try to guess the day’s exact level on the Air Quality Index, and whether the air is dangerous.
These days, chances are that it could well be. For more than half of the past 60 days, the air pollution has hit levels hazardous to human health. Experts estimate long-term exposure to such pollution could reduce life expectancy by as much as five years. But I don’t tell the kids that.
Living inside the pollution zone, those daily measurements determine how my family spends its days. Whenever the levels hit “very unhealthy,” we keep the kids indoors and refuse to let them take part in outdoor activities, no matter how much whining might ensue. When to wear a pollution mask, when to stay indoors, it’s all become crucial knowledge, even for our 4-year-old.
Differences In Measurement
That U.S. air pollution monitor has become central in the debate over Beijing’s air quality, since it measures fine particles and thus produces different readings to China’s official statistics, which measure only larger particles.
According to leaked cables, in 2009, Chinese officials claimed the air monitor’s readings were causing “confusion” and undesirable “social consequences” among the Chinese public, and asked the embassy to consider limiting access to the data to American citizens.