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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 . . .

Friday, November 22, 2013

Don't Tip the Unicorns . . .

I know right, this was supposed to be the continuation of "The Art of Breathing," and I promise you that will come, probably, almost definitely tomorrow.

But . . . I've just had a fun, funny, playing with words chat with a friend that reminded me of who I am, where I come from, why I sometimes don't fit in and why I should stop trying so hard to do so.

In the course of things, her imaginary island and unicorns were mentioned (unicorns not being imaginary but hoping that humans are only a bad dream) and, she and I being wordsmiths and fools, we ended up with her asking me to pass her the unicorns and me telling her not to tip them.

Because, as I have been told often in Asia, if you tip the unicorns, waitresses, taxi drivers or any other creature that makes life easier for you, "you spoil it for the rest of us."

Do NOT tip the unicorns, just pass them my way . . .

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Art of Breathing . . .

Growing up in New Zealand, I never really thought about clean air - it was, literally, as natural as breathing. I suffered asthma as a child but, like many asthmatics, grew out of it and never thought about it again until I began traveling overseas.

During my first overseas sojourn, to Melbourne, Australia, I developed a nagging cold I just couldn't shake. Or that's what I thought, at least. When a doctor asked me to describe my symptoms, I said it felt like I was wheezing (my younger sister had more serious asthma so I was familiar with the symptoms), the doctor did some tests and told me I was correct. Unaccustomed as I was to the different pollens and histamines in Australia, my asthma had returned but wasn't more than a minor problem.

Until I moved to Asia, that is.

Seoul in 2001 was a shock to my system and I experienced my first asthma attack - a terrifying experience as I was not in the habit of carrying my inhaler with me. Tougher emissions controls and tighter regulations on industry mean Seoul's air is now much cleaner but I have taken maintenance medicine for my asthma almost every day since then. (The exceptions being because I hate the idea of ingesting any chemical daily so tried a few times to do without - before learning the hard way that I really need asthma meds to breathe in Asia.)

Obviously, considering China as my next place of employment meant considering many factors - salary, saving potential, travel and writing opportunities, relationship impact, lifestyle and living conditions. Top in the living conditions column was the quality of air, or, in China, lack thereof. I laughed it off, telling friends I would purchase air filters for each room, particularly as my utilities were being paid as part of my remuneration package. I was more concerned than I let on, however.

As I was right to be. The world media has been covering the pollution problem here and the stats are readily available and frightening, as are the photographs and first-person reports. The country IS doing what it can to alleviate a problem many developing countries have already experienced - London during the Industrial Revolution, Los Angeles and Chicago much more recently - but any solution must be multi-faceted and will take time. And is unlikely to happen in my time in country.

Not such a nice day in Beijing - the US Embassy lists the current air quality as 161 on a scale of 0-500, 0-50 being 'Good' and 301-500 being hazardous. ' "Unhealthy" AQI is 151 - 200. Everyone may begin to experience some adverse health effects, and members of the sensitive groups may experience more serious effects.'

So I turned to my first plan - air filters so at least my apartment would have clean air. I had a US-made filter in Seoul so shipped that to China and found a voltage converter for it but, in a moment of inattention, moved it from my bedroom to my study and plugged it in without the converter. Bye bye Honeywell HEPA filter, at least until I find an electrician who may be able to resurrect it.

With winter approaching and many warnings of how bad the air gets during winter, it was time to find a replacement. I started looking, and found the brands here ranged from 3,000-13,000 RMB ($500-2,100) or even higher, and started to consider having a friend ship one or two from the states.

Then I found the solution . . .

(To be continued, time to venture into the smog to go to the gym and the market - a mask will probably be my next line of defense)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Apologies . . .

The Opening Up piece below had the wrong link, a result of housekeeping the blog while way too tired, but has now been corrected. My bad . . .

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Opening up . . .

I've spent the past week touring Hunan province on a very busy media tour so am a week late uploading this, but here is the second story I have written for China Daily, on a New Zealand practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine . . .