What to Do about Beijing Air

Beijing’s dirty air is easily the worst thing about living there. You might think what to do about it is obvious. Many people do, including this man who wants to sell the expensive air filter he bought:

I remember the day IQair Sales Rep Justin Shuttleworth came to my place [in Beijing] to give me a demo. This guy has the easiest job in the world. All he does is come with his little air quality measuring device, show you how bad the air you are breathing is in your apartment (indoor air is sometimes worse than outdoor air for those who don`t know), and as the minutes go by, you literally see the amount of particles in the air go down, until it’s basically nil. This was the first time that I could actually smell the difference.

This is from an email list I’m on.

I got the same demo.  But it had the opposite effect: It made me not want to buy the IQair filter.

The air coming out of the IQair filter was very clean, yes. But there was only so much it could do. More dirty air was always coming into my apartment and no matter how high (= noisy) they ran the machine the overall level of dirt was no more than cut by 2/3rds. I already had an air filter. The air it produced wasn’t quite as clean as air from the IQair filter but it was still much much cleaner than the intake air. The IQair machine cost about 11,000 RMB. My filter had cost about 1,000 RMB. For 1,500 RMB I could buy a bigger version of what I already had, an air filter that cleaned twice as much air per minute as the IQair machine while producing roughly the same amount of noise. Its output was slightly dirtier than the output of the IQair machine but the overall cleaning effect — the reduction in dirt — was much greater. I ended up getting two of the 1,500 RMB filters.

I think of this demo when I hear someone talk about how this or that traditional diets is better than our modern diet. They make a simple point: People who eat the traditional diet are healthy, people who eat the modern diet are unhealthy. Just as the IQair demo guy has “the easiest job in the world.” They inevitably conclude: Eat the traditional diet or at least closer to it. Just as the conclusion of the demo is supposed to be: Buy an IQair filter. It seems so simple.

But it isn’t so simple. Eating the traditional diet isn’t easy, just as the IQair filter isn’t cheap. Maybe their abstraction — their description — of the traditional diet leaves out something important. Just as the IQair people do not measure cleaning power per decibel, which turns out to be what matters. (I traded air pollution for noise pollution. I wanted the best deal possible.)

If you read Good Calories Bad Calories you may remember the Canadian anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson who spent many months with Eskimos eating what they ate. He came back and told the world “you can eat only meat.” In his conclusions and subsequent field experiment, he ignored the fact that the Eskimos ate a lot of fermented meat.

6 Replies to “What to Do about Beijing Air”

  1. Dear Seth,

    I live in Beijing and am just thinking about buying an air filter, your comments make a lot of sense, but can you tell me which air filter you bought, or any suggestions where to find out about cheaper air filters?

    If it’s a super hot summer’s day, you have all the windows closed and the air con on full blast, can your air filter(s) keep up?

    I see IQair have their own stores in Beijing now, and their website is conspicuous in its lack of price information. They seem to have their marketing to the Shunyi expat community worked out very clearly, perhaps they will have chronically asthmatic children on the next ad to really hammer home the fear factor.

    Otherwise, a certain exposure to bacteria is a good thing surely, if your IQair unit gets rid of all the bacteria at home, as soon as your young kids go outside their immune systems will be less prepared to deal with all the bacteria on the street? Reminds me of the Japanese craze for sanitising everything which as far as I understood was not good for their general asthma levels.

    The other thing I wonder about is cleaning air conditioners. I got ours cleaned at home last summer. I got a guy who was recommended by the manufacturer but did not actually work for them (freelance fixer) and he came and took the cover off, sprayed some foam all over the filters and left that to soak in, then topped up the coolant one one as some of it had leaked. But I don’t know how to confirm what that foam was, or if it could have been an air pollutant in itself. How could I possibly know if he fobbed us off with the cheap foam version.. Just in case you have researched such a thing yourself. He charged 150RMB for both air cons which seemed cheap anyway.

    sorry to rabble on but thanks if you have any suggestions for the air filter, Sincerely,

    Will Croxford (Beijing resident)

  2. My air filters are from Yadu. You can get a low price on the Chinese amazon site but you need to be able to read Chinese. I got the cheap air filter (1000 RMB) at Carrefour; the more expensive one (1500 RMB) I got online.
    I know nothing about cleaning air conditioners, sorry.

    It isn’t the bacteria in the air that worries me, it’s all the combustion byproducts, which I’m sure are carcinogenic.

  3. Dear Seth, Thanks kindly for the reply. You will help my family and I to breathe more easily I should think – I can read Chinese so will check out the Amazon site. As far as I understand about air conditioners, the filters should be cleaned professionally once a year, I guess the foam stuff he used was the right thing. Best wishes, Will Croxford

  4. Which is why I usually rephrase that point as “You can eat mostly meat.”

    They also ate a lot of organ meats; vitamin C and other vital things are present in liver, and I don’t see how you can get on without that one. 😉

  5. Hi Seth,

    We actually purchased Yadu per your recommendation but recently purchased our 3rd unit from Alen air purifiers. I can honestly say there is a huge difference between Yadu and Alen (which is much better) but cant really say much about IQ cuz we can’t afford it.

  6. I bought a Blueair purifier last week–I was desperate to breathe! [The cheap little Ya Du quit and they couldn’t provide a new filter immediately] Obviously I was in a hurry–I am still concerned that they insisted they would not accept returns unless it mechanically wouldn’t work. I have used Austin Air purifiers for years. They are excellent and offer thirty days return -no-questions-asked –which is reassuring when you are spending $500. This Blueair has a polypropylene filter–{Austin Air uses hemp!} There is a faint weird smell from the supposedly clean air coming out of the purifier. Kinda plastic but vague–I wonder if anyone has any better ideas for an Air purifier or has ever heard of being allergic to the filters? I do think it is possible the damn thing has counterfeit filters–but who knows? and, how would you ever figure it out?
    Maybe two cheap Ya Du would be better?

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