China’s Pollution Problem

A photo taken from, displaying a record-setting pollution day last December in Shanghai.

I never expected to live in China. In fact, China wasn’t even on my radar when considering international teaching jobs. This wasn’t because of the long plane ride home (although that does suck), or the strange food and customs (let’s be honest, this is what intrigued me). My aversion was strictly environmental: I was scared to death of the pollution.

But, as I’ve learned during my time abroad, nothing is what it seems, and you really have no idea about the reality of a place until you actually live there.

I moved to Shanghai at the end of July. The temperature sat around 100 degrees during the day, and the weather app on my iPhone told me it felt like 110. Each time I left my house was like walking into a thick, damp curtain. My jeans and shirts with sleeves went to the back of my closet, and I spent the rest of the summer walking around town like I’d just dismounted a horse—legs spread wide just to feel a slight breeze tickle the inside of my sweaty thighs.

I know, what a lovely image I’ve painted of myself. Oh, did I mention the combination of heat and MSG gives me cankles?

Anyway, I am a big advocate of seeing the good in things; and while summertime in Shanghai is, temperature-wise, hell on earth, the pollution is relatively non- existent.

The U.S. Embassy, along with the Chinese government and a slew of environmental protection agencies, publish hourly reports of the pollution levels across the country.  The numbers range from 0-50 (Good), 51-100 (Moderate), 101-150 (Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups), 151-200 (Unhealthy), 201-250 (Very Unhealthy) to 300+ (Hazardous). This information is available online and on smart phone apps; and up until yesterday, the numbers have mostly hovered between 30-100.

A couple of weeks ago it started feeling like fall. The air was crisp, and there was that certain smell associated with colder weather. I’m not sure what that is, but it seems to exist in every country.

Unfortunately, the lower temperatures have brought higher pollution numbers. And yesterday, I experienced my first “very unhealthy” air day.

I’ve developed a weird obsession with checking my AQI app, so I knew right when I woke up that Shanghai was at 200. When I looked out the window, the buildings in the distance were harder to see, and the sun appeared to be enveloped in haze. Then I got an email from the school’s director entitled “Bad Air Days—Keeping Students Healthy.”

The email was sent to remind teachers about the school’s new multi-million dollar air purification system, and to ensure that, from the options of “low” and high,” we selected high during these 200+ days. We were also to keep the windows closed and to limit our exertion outdoors.

The words “these 200+ days” flashed in my mind for the remainder of the day, and prompted me to ask my fellow teachers just what we were in store for the next few months. In short: I didn’t like their answers.

Apparently, the winter months are bad—I’m talking 300+ on some days. One of the girls even recalled a day where the numbers hit 600.

I also discovered that December-March is cold—really cold. And that the unrelenting humidity from summer returns in the form of frigid dampness.

But as I said before, I am somewhat of a wide-eyed optimist, and believe that good things can always come from bad situations. So while I live in a somewhat undesirable location in terms of weather and pollution, I also live in a thriving city, full of interesting expats and endless entertainment. I imagine these winter months will be just fine—just so long as I stay inside—in one of the many venues equipped with expensive air filtration systems.

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