One Low-Cost Safeguard While Living in 'Toxic' China

What to do, when you're afraid to breathe the air.

In Sunday's NYT, correspondent Edward Wong in Beijing has a powerful essay on the realities of living in a country where you are afraid to breathe the air. What he reports rings depressingly true to me. You can't say it often enough: the main challenge to China's continued development, and even to the government's ongoing legitimacy, is environmental sustainability in all aspects. Air, water, soil contamination, toxic food supplies, plus emissions overall. Sustainability is of course the challenge for the modern world as a whole, heavily affected by both China and America; but the situation is simply more dire and immediate in China. 


Which brings me to: a reader's suggestion for a lower-cost alternative to the very expensive air-purifying systems that many Chinese and foreigners rely on in China, and that Wong describes in his article. These are usually bulky devices that go for many hundreds or even thousands of dollars. My wife and I called the one in our Beijing apartment "the iron lung." 

But now Thomas Talhelm, a Fulbright scholar living in Beijing, has experimented with building his own fine-particulate air filter. The latest "airpocalypse" in Beijing, he writes in a note, "inspired me to do some (personal) research into how air filters work, and I discovered how to make a simple HEPA air purifier for 166 RMB that my data shows works as well as the 11,000 RMB 'IQ Air' at removing particulate pollution form the home." The image above shows what the filter removed from the air in his apartment. His search for a cheaper workaround is in the finest (sincerely) tradition of Chinese improvisation, and it means the difference between around $26 for the home-made version and around $1750 for the very popular [among the well-heeled], high-end IQ Air.

You can see more of his findings at his Tumblr site, Particle Counting. He's not an atmospheric scientist, and neither am I. But I would be giving his approach a try if I were there. Readers on scene, check it out. And, if you'd like to compare this with high-end commercial models, consider reviews here and here by a Beijing-based Western MD.

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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