Surviving the Smog

Article by Brian Cotter

As much as we can all appreciate this madcap city of ours, with its excellent food, growing cultural scene, burgeoning nightlife and extremely well written English language expat magazine, we simply can’t gloss over that solid four-month period between November and March when the air just gets really crappy. Frankly, it’s dangerous to our health.

It’s tempting to take the “ignorance is bliss” approach at times but, in reality, the long-term health effects are pretty eye-opening. I won’t venture too far into the many, many studies that have been done on the topic, but two in particular stuck out to me: research from Berkeley* from August 2015 that attributes 4 000 deaths a day in China to PM 2.5, and a study from the Max Planck Institute** that found PM 2.5 to be the cause of 3.3 million premature deaths a year on the planet, more than malaria and HIV/AIDS combined.

So what can we do to protect ourselves against this madness? Here’s a quick guide to some products that I and others have found useful in our annual winter struggle.

Face Masks

3MN95 and N99 masks: 3M is a long-established and highly regarded company that’s been making these masks for decades as protective gear for construction and heavy industries worldwide. If you can be sure you’re buying the authentic version (avoid street vendors, etc.), these are both cheap and effective. A big concern with masks is they don’t create a necessary seal on the face, but with these, there’s very little air leakage. I usually buy a box of 25 on Amazon China for less than 150RMB. Each mask should last for around seven days of full use.

Recommended models: Those in the N95 and N99 range, particularly the 9501, the 9010, and the 9332.

Respro: Marketed with an emphasis on fashion and “sporty” appeal, and therefore more aesthetically pleasing than the 3Ms, the Respro range starts at 199RMB and the masks are reusable for a couple of months. Unlike the 3Ms they also have a breathing valve, which means that it’s possible to do heavy exercise while wearing them. Their effectiveness in filtering fulfills a host of industry standards. They are apparently quite comfortable, but anecdotal evidence suggests they may be leakier than the 3M options.

2526Air Filters

With your mask bought, you’re now covered (quite literally) for when you venture outside into the abyss. But what about the huge amount of time you spend indoors during the winter months? You’ll need to consider an indoor air filter. There are some pretty expensive options on the market (Philips, Blueair, IQAir) that are by all accounts extremely effective, but I’ve chosen to focus on more economically priced models that I’ve used myself.

Smart Air: There are two models: the Original (200RMB) and the Cannon (470RMB), the latter is pricier, as it is stronger and therefore clears the air quicker and more effectively, particularly in larger rooms (more than 15m2).Their design is simplistic–both are basically conventional fans with HEPA filters adjusted onto their front. They work fairly effectively (their website has some good solid evidence, and they’ve received a lot of positive news coverage), but they are pretty loud, especially the Cannon.

Smart Air Filters

27Xiaomi Air 2: I bought one of these a few months ago, and I love it. They’re only 699RMB on the Xiaomi website, Amazon China (, and They’re very quiet, and actually look rather sleek compared to other more expensive options on the market.There is an accompanying smartphone app that lets you control the filter speed and monitor the indoor AQI. It uses a three-stage filter, including HEPA and an activated carbon filter, so it will filter formaldehyde and other gases as well as PM2.5 and other particulate matter. Highly recommended.