The air pollution that plagues Beijing and other cities worldwide can have
short-term and long-term health consequences.
Beijing's air pollution makes for a well-rounded sensory experience:
There's the sight of the brown haze rolling into the
Chinese capital, the sound of the traffic churning underneath it, and a physical
feeling, often in the form of "the Beijing cough" – a
dry hacking accompanied by an itchy throat.
In terms of air pollution, Beijing and surrounding areas have had a rough
winter. In December, the government
issued a red alert, its most severe warning in its four-tier system. Schools were closed.
Flights were canceled. Construction projects crawled to a halt. Just days
ago, the government
announced plans to decrease coal consumption and create a new police force to combat the
pollution. And for good reason: The health effects of smog go far beyond
a nagging cough.
Beijing's smog isn't killing thousands right away like the infamous
Great Smog of London in 1952 – medical treatment has evolved since
then and the chemical makeup of the pollution is different. But the air
pollution can trigger short-term effects like heart attacks, asthma attacks
and bronchitis, says Dr. Ray Casciari, a pulmonologist with St. Joseph
Hospital in Orange, California. There's also a risk that thick smog
can cause deadly traffic incidents, much like the one that killed Winston's
Churchill's fictional secretary in episode four of "The Crown."
That said, most experts say short-term travel to Beijing is fine for healthy adults.
Yifang Zhu, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University
of California Los Angeles, tracks about a dozen UCLA students who study
in Beijing for 10 weeks each summer. When they return, she does research
on them, testing their urine to see how they've been affected by air
While she can see evidence of the pollution, she says the short-term effects
in her students are reversible.
But for the elderly, children and people with existing health conditions,
it's a different story. In those cases, it's best to avoid exposure,
says Terry Gordon, a professor of environmental medicine at NYU Langone
"If you are a healthy person, you have less reason to be concerned,"
he says. "But if you are elderly or a child with asthma, you probably
While the short-term effects of air pollution are concerning, it's
the long-term consequences that really worry researchers. In 2012, 3 million
people worldwide died from air pollution-related health effects, according to a
recent report from the World Health Organization. In China, more than a million people
lost their lives – the highest number of any country.
Air pollution can cause lung disease and cardiovascular disease, as well
as cancer and birth defects, says Zhu. But it's hard to gauge the
depth of the health consequences of China's smog for several reasons, she says.
For one, such high levels of air pollution are a relatively recent phenomenon,
and long-term health consequences take time to develop. Secondly, most
studies about air pollution-triggered health effects have been conducted
in environments with much less pollution than exists in China today.
"L.A. we know has the worst air quality in the U.S., and Beijing is
10 to 20 times worse than L.A." she says.
In Beijing, officials are primarily concerned with fine particles of air
pollution which come mostly from combustion sources. The poisonous particles,
known as PM2.5, are small enough they can bypass human mucus and make
their way into the lungs. The World Health Organization says PM2.5 levels
are safe around
25 micrograms per cubic meter. In December in Beijing, levels were 15 times the guidelines, according to the