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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Art of Breathing (continued) . . .

Beijing . . .

It brings to mind images of Tian'anmen Square, the Great Wall, Peking Duck and, increasingly, bad air. Really bad air. Air so bad that the air quality monitor on the Beijing Embassy has measured it some days as above 500, which was previously considered the top of the scale (an air quality index of 301 - 500 is considered hazardous).

The view from my apartment on a 'moderate' air day.

The most serious concern is particulates of less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM 2.5) as they are small enough to get into the lungs and blood stream. Air quality, or lack thereof, is a big factor for most foreign workers considering moving to China and a constant topic of conversation for all who live here, both locals and expats. The country is working to improve the air quality but that will take time. Ways to alleviate the problem until then are to use masks outside and air filters inside. The problem being, in this country where most things are cheaper than in Western countries, air filters are exorbitantly expensive.

Someone who noticed that earlier than me, and came up with a solution is Thomas Talhelm, who came to China last year on a Fulbright scholarship. Noticing that most commercial air filters cost from $600 - $1,200 or more, he started to look at how they were made and how they worked. Being a self-confessed data nerd, he bought a HEPA filter, strapped it to a fan he had modified, tested the results with a particle counter and published them on a blog called Particle Counting.

In a land known for reverse engineering, he reverse engineered expensive commercial filters and came up with a DIY solution for a fraction of the cost. He published the results and started giving workshops on how to make your own HEPA filter but also, after people told him they were having difficulty sourcing the materials, he and two friends (Anna Guo and Gus Tate) ordered the parts in bulk and selling the kits for 200 RMB - less than $33 at today's exchange rate. They will also ship them anywhere in China at no extra cost.

The three admit they are not experts in air pollution but present data and video of the effect the DIY filters have on PM2.5 and PM5 and, with my trusty Honeywell HEPA filter shorted out, I decided it was worth spending $33 to test the results myself.

And I am impressed. Since inadvertently killing my commercial filter, I'd been waking each morning with sore, streaming eyes and a sore throat - not good symptoms for an asthmatic with the worst of the pollution expected during the fast-approaching winter. Those symptoms disappeared the morning after I bought, assembled and set up my DIY filter and my breathing feels like it's improved even when I venture out into the often cruddy air.

My DIY Hepa filter and the dearly departed Honeywell it is replacing.

I have a fairly large apartment so will buy another one or two DIY filters to take me safely through winter's worst.

My next task, finding an effective mask I can bear to wear for when I venture out . . .

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