How bad is the pollution in China?

Air pollution in China, and particularly in Beijing, is a reality. However, like many world health issues, air pollution is frequently de-contextualized and disproportionately represented in the media, making it difficult to get an accurate birds-eye view of the overall picture. And the overall picture is far from as bleak as mainstream media outlets make it sound. In fact, a comment we hear frequently from China alumni is: “The pollution isn’t as bad as everyone makes it out to be!”

Beijing gets a bad rap, but it is far from the most polluted city in the world. While cities with the heaviest levels of pollution tend to be low- to middle-income cities in Asia, parallels have been drawn between present-day Beijing and 19th-century Pittsburgh, post-WWII London, and even, on occasion, present-day Paris.

Regardless of pollution,  many Chinese cities are vibrant, active, and exciting places to live. We have long-term staff in Beijing, Harbin, Kunming and Shanghai who love their home cities and enjoy sharing their knowledge and resources with students. Here’s how staff help students work around any pollution and enjoy life in China for all that it offers:

  • Staff discuss pollution with students at all China orientation sessions, and offer recommendations for dorm room air filters and purifiers, both of which can be purchased inexpensively. (Classroom air filters are also installed in all classrooms in Beijing and Harbin.)
  • Staff keep a close eye on the daily pollution index, and teach students to do the same. When the numbers warrant indoor activity, outdoor excursions are canceled.
  • Staff share resources with students—resources that are sound, reputable, and offer concrete advice. For example, in this TED Talk, Dr. Richard Saint Cyr, a US board-certified doctor of family medicine who has been living in China since 2006, discusses how to stay healthy in Beijing. He approaches health holistically and provides easy tips for minimizing the impact of air pollution.

We in no way want to minimize the seriousness of China’s environmental problems. And we do recommend that students with respiratory illnesses consider programs in clean-air cities like Kunming. But we also believe that China is worth the journey. By taking a few basic precautions, students can (and do!) thrive in this wonderful study abroad destination.