A Breath of Fresh Air

Wednesday, 25 March 2009


A gust of fresh air may be elusive in Beijing, but there are ways to help your family’s health stagger through the smog

Beijing’s air is sick. It wakes up in the morning and rolls over, coughing and hacking like an old smoker. It skims off building sites and mingles with car exhaust and the smog blowing in from factories out of town. It lingers and festers in a vaporous band a meter off the ground, right in the space where our kids’ lungs suck in the most air. As in many large cities around the world, air pollution here is a lecherous problem, but there are ways you can help protect your kids from its effects.

Children are more vulnerable to air pollution than adults. No surprise there. Not only are they closer to the ground, but their bodies and immune systems are still developing, and potential asthma may still be lurking deep inside their airways. Being an asthmatic myself, it was with much trepidation that we brought a 2 and 4-year old to Beijing three years ago.

Since then, we’ve been poised for Beijing-induced-asthma to blossom in their lungs, yet thankfully, they’ve both escaped. I remember spending our first month in Beijing gaping like a guppy in a goldfish bowl, not because my asthma flared up, but because of the lack of oxygen saturation in the air as much of the space was taken up by small particulates. A friend of mine even went so far as to send me liquid oxygen drops until my body could “get used to” the lack of oxygen, and it actually eased the considerable ache in my lungs (only to be replaced by lime-green goo).

But what does this “lack of oxygen” and other pollution issues mean for our children’s health? A crunchy cough, stinging eyes, scratchy throat and that grubby feeling you get after just minutes outside are merely the mild side-effects of Beijing’s air pollution; so what about the more serious, longer term effects? What are we really exposing our kids to by the simple process of inhalation?


Playing indoors won't leave you gasping...

According to Dr. Will Chickering, an emergency room doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital, the worst pollution effects actually come from traffic. Ultra-fine particles that gather around major roads enter our homes, unfazed by tightly shut doors and windows, and then continue to re-circulate. It’s therefore important to freshen your home by opening windows on clear days at either 7am or 9pm, when traffic emissions are at their lowest.

The use of air-purifiers, air-conditioning and air filters will also help clean the air. HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) air filters can reduce larger air particulates by 90 percent, though ultra-fine particles will still linger, which is why it’s important to live away from main roads, or as high as you can; ideally above the seventh floor. HEPA filters are only effective in small areas, so the perfect spot for them is the bedroom where most of us spend a third of our days, inhaling deeply.

"What are we really exposing our kids to by the simple process of inhalation?"

Those living away from main roads in Shunyi should remember that although life in the ‘burbs may seem “cleaner”, the longer commuting times and exposure to coal-burning and jet-fuel emissions negates the lower traffic pollution.

Interestingly, commuting inside any kind of car, especially diesel vehicles, can be worse than riding a bicycle on Beijing’s streets due to exhaust fumes lingering in the car’s cabin. Living close to work and school minimizes commuting times and therefore toxic exposure. For bicycle riders—don’t be fooled—face masks can block larger particles but won’t protect against ultra-fine traffic particulates. Ride short distances, if you can.

Your Best Air Pollution Defense
· Live at least 150 meters away from main roads
· Move closer to work/school and go high-rise
· Consider commuting alternatives
· Don't smoke, and avoid second-hand smoke
· Use sheer curtains to cover all windows; wash them frequently
· Exercise regularly (indoors on bad days)
· Eat lots of fruit and vegetables
· Take antioxidants (Vitamins C and E) and Omega-3 fatty acids
· Monitor asthma carefully with your child’s doctor
· Use HEPA air-filters
· Don’t forget pets – keep them indoors on bad days
· Check http://english.mep.gov.cn for daily pollution levels (above 3 = bad)

While we seem to have little control over the traffic in Beijing, we do have control over what we eat. An excellent diet keeps our kids’ bodies operating at optimal levels that can better fight the effects of air pollution.

Nina Lenton, a registered dietitian at Bayley & Jackson Medical Center, believes good nutrition is vital. “Maintaining an ideal body weight, limiting saturated and trans fats, and eating lots of fruit, vegetables and lean protein will ensure your body is in good condition,” says Nina, “Exercise is also important for overall health and good lung function.”

Eating a diet high in antioxidants is especially important, according to Lenton. Vitamins A, C and E fight the free radicals cruising for trouble in our blood, and are especially effective on fine particulates.

Although vitamin supplements are helpful, the best source for antioxidants is from fresh food. “Vary your family’s diet as much as possible so you receive a good range of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, which can add further protection,” says Lenton.


Riley breathes easy, playing near a HEPA air filter.

Vitamin A and Beta carotene are particularly important for keeping the lungs healthy. Lenton says to up your family’s intake of whole milk, liver, egg yolks, fish oil, butter and fortified breakfast cereals, as well as orange-colored fruit and veggies, and dark green veggies like spinach and bok choy. Wash and peel fruit and vegetables, and try to opt for organic wherever possible. Foods high in antioxidants include all types of beans, nuts, berries, plums, apples, green and black tea, chocolate and red wine (for mom and dad only!).

Kid-Friendly Anti-Oxidant Foods
· baked sweet potato wedges
· pumpkin soup
· spinach quiche
· salmon fish cakes
· kidney-bean burgers or lasagna
· pecan nut slice
· berry smoothies
· orange fruit salad

If our diets are good and we take measures to improve our home environments, what happens if our kids still get air-sick? Seasonal allergies, sinus infections and asthma are certainly common with kids in Beijing.

Dr. DyAnn Chao, pediatrician at SOS International Clinic, says regular coughing could indeed be due to air-borne irritants or simply a common cold. “Air pollution can prolong the symptoms of asthma or seasonal allergies,” says Chao, “But it does not necessarily cause asthma. If a cough persists or worsens, it’s important to get your child checked by a medical professional, [whatever the perceived cause].”

Asthma triggers vary, with only some cases set off by air pollution. Other triggers include exercise, pet hair, pollen and dust mites. For asthma control and general health whilst living in Beijing, Dr. Chao suggests weekend trips away from the city and improving air quality in the home by frequent cleaning, using air purifiers, eliminating stuffed toys and carpet, and refraining from smoking.

Beijing is a wonderful city to live in. Inhaling its recurrent pea-soup air may be challenging, but imprisoning our kids indoors and force-feeding them broccoli soup for breakfast is no way to live.

Happily, studies show that the serious long-term effects of living here for three to five years actually appears negligible overall, and any reduced lung function is usually temporary, improving steadily once you leave Beijing.

So long as we take regular precautions, eat well, monitor existing health conditions and get to Phuket frequently, it seems that living in a temporary fog may be not so bad after all.

First published in City Weekend Beijing Parents & Kids magazine.

1 comment:

Air said...

Air purifier are a good alternative to the standard air purifiers available on the market today, because they help to produce a stream of negatively charged ions. These ions have been scientifically proven to be effective in uplifting the atmosphere and achieving the same quality of the air that one breathes near a waterfall or in other natural outdoor environments.

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