Cost of air pollution

Death in the Air Infographic by World Bank

The World Bank released a new report titled “The Cost of Air Pollution: strengthening the economic case for action” and in it they detail how air pollution is now the 4th leading risk factor for deaths worldwide. That’s worse than the deaths attributed to alcohol and drug use, HIV/AIDS, and even malaria. Besides the other reasons for reducing air pollution (climate change, our health, etc.) the economic one is probably the one that will communicate the strongest to everyone as air pollution costs the global economy in terms of foregone labor income to the tune of $225 Billion each year globally.

Click here for full report.

Click here to view the infographic in higher resolution.

Air pollution has emerged as the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths worldwide. While pollution-related deaths mainly strike young children and the elderly, these deaths also result in lost labor income for working-age men and women. The loss of life is tragic. The cost to the economy is substantial. The infographic below is mainly based on findings from The Cost of Air Pollution: Strengthening the economic case for action, a joint study of the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).
Air pollution has emerged as the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths worldwide. While pollution-related deaths mainly strike young children and the elderly, these deaths also result in lost labor income for working-age men and women. The loss of life is tragic. The cost to the economy is substantial. The infographic below is mainly based on findings from The Cost of Air Pollution: Strengthening the economic case for action, a joint study of the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).
Source Pollution

10 Facts About Air Pollution

We get many questions about air pollution in our office, and understandably so. It’s a topic that isn’t well understood or well-reported about in certain parts of the countries in which we work. In some cases, it is difficult to distinguish research-backed findings from common beliefs. To contribute to collective learning, here is a quick list of top 10 facts about air pollution.

  1. Air pollution is made up of chemicals, particulates, and biological materials. Common  components include, but are not limited to: nitrogen, sulfur, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, dust, and ash.
  2. Air pollution is caused by both human and natural contributors. Industries, factories, vehicles, mining, agriculture, forest fires, volcanic eruptions, and wind erosion all cause air pollution.
  3. According to the Global Burden of Disease report (2013), air pollution contributes to more than 5.5 million premature deaths every year. Another report by the International Energy Agency estimates the number to be 6.5 million deaths per year.
  4. Research has linked air pollution to multiple diseases: acute lower respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, tuberculosis, low birth weight, asthma, and cataract.
  5. According to the WHO, 98% of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100,000 habitants have unsafe levels of air pollution.
  6. Of the top twenty most polluted cities in the world, 13 are in India and 3 are in China. Delhi ranks as 11th most polluted, whereas Beijing ranks as 57th most polluted.
  7. Over half of India’s population—660 million people—live in areas with unsafe levels of air pollution.
  8. On average, Indians living in polluted areas will lose 3.2 years of their lives due to air pollution.
  9. In 2014, India and China tied at 155 among 178 nations in rankings measuring how countries are tackling air pollution in the world, despite both countries having some of the worst air quality in the world.
  10. Pregnant women who live in  high traffic areas have a 22% higher risk of having children with impaired lung function than those living in less polluted areas.

Is it possible to lower the cost of clean air without sacrificing effectiveness?

A few months after I published my DIY tests, there were already Taobao stores up and running, selling DIYs even cheaper than my 200 RMB. I was intrigued. If we could really lower the cost of clean air, that’s a win!

But we have to be sure these cheaper machines are as effective. So I ordered the cheaper machines, tested them systematically, and found they performed much worse (2).

A New Way to Lower the Cost of Clean Air

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to make HEPAs even more affordable. Recently I tested one way to do that: if we can shave 1 millimeter from the size of the HEPA, we can save 6% on the price. This new size still covers the fan opening, but does it still work as well?


To test this question, my collaborator Anna ran 10 overnight room tests with the 29 mm in her Beijing apartment and compared it to my earlier tests of the 30 mm HEPA in the same 15m2 room.


Like in my earlier tests, I calculated effectiveness as the percent reduction in particulate from the start of the test to the average of the last four hours. Here’s what one of those tests looks like with the reduction calculation laid out. The blue line is indoor 0.5 micron particles; the red line is outdoor PM 2.5



On average, the new 29mm HEPA reduced 0.5 micron particle levels in the room by 86% and 2.5 micron levels by 91%. These results were almost identical to my prior results with the 30mm HEPA.



This new HEPA lets us lower the cost of clean air without sacrificing any effectiveness. Win! We just lowered the price of Smart Air HEPAs from 80 RMB to 75 RMB.

HEPA Cost Comparison

Next I took that price and compared it to the two biggest brands out there, Blue Air and IQ Air. (Also check out the long-run cost comparison .)

Nerd Note on Replication

As a side note, this test is now the third series of room tests I’ve published with the Original DIY (early tests; 200-day longevity test). Add that to Dr. Saint Cyr’s tests, and I’d say that’s a satisfying amount of reproducibility.

For fellow data nerds, I’m posting the original data and more details about the test below.





Outdoor PM 2.5 Fluctuations

I like these long tests more than the common 20-minute tests (such as CADR tests) because this mimics how most people use purifiers. However, one drawback of these long tests is that outdoor PM 2.5 levels sometimes change over the course of 8 hours. If outdoor PM 2.5 drops, that can artificially inflate effectiveness. If outdoor PM 2.5 rises, that can artificially decrease effectiveness.

These changes should cancel out over 10 tests, but it’s worthwhile to re-run the analysis while excluding days with large outdoor changes. Among these 10 tests, two days (9/25 and 11/10) had large outdoor PM 2.5 changes. Without those two days, the averages were almost identical: 84% on 0.5 micron particles and 91% on 2.5 micron particles.

Average Outdoor PM 2.5 During Tests

It’s also worthwhile to check out bad outdoor PM 2.5 was during the tests to see if these days were representative of normal Beijing air. The average outdoor PM 2.5 was 116 micrograms. That’s about 20 micrograms higher than Beijing’s average PM 2.5 over the last five years (according to my analysis of the US Embassy’s PM 2.5 data). Thus, if anything, these tests are tougher than the Beijing average.




DIYer Makes Cannon Quieter

Bill is an expat living in the hills northwest of Beijing, and he uses his DIY Cannon to cut the particulate in his home.

图片 1

But Bill wanted to improve on the biggest downside of the Cannon–it’s a bit loud on high:


So Bill designed a sound dampening box for the Cannon out of foam blocks:

图片 3

There are openings in the front and back to let air through, although my guess is this lowers effectiveness by at least a few percent.

To further cut down on noise, Bill wrapped the Cannon with a blanket:

图片 4

With all that padding, Bill measured a 6 decibel drop in noise! If you have a Cannon already, here’s an idea of what that’s like: That’s 2 decibels quieter than the regular Cannon on low (52 db).

If the noise gets to you and you don’t mind a craft project, I sanction it! However, keep in mind two things:

  1. Monitor the fan temperature. Make sure your design does not allow the fan to overheat.
  2. I suspect this will lower effectiveness by at least a few percentage points. I can’t say more precisely without testing it.

Great work, Bill!



Winter (Air) is Coming

Another year, another Beijing winter. As winter arrives to Beijing, I got to wondering: how much worse is winter air?

To get to the bottom of it, I analyzed the last seven years of US Embassy PM 2.5 data. I found that the capital’s air has averaged 111 micrograms in the winter versus 92 micrograms for the rest of the year.


Just how bad is that? The WHO 24-hour PM 2.5 limit is 25 micrograms. That means Beijing’s summers average three times the limit, and winters average over four times limit.


Breathe safe this winter!


indoor vs outdoor

Shanghai Test: Is Indoor air better than outdoor air?

When I got my very first particle counter, I tested sites around Beijing to see whether indoor air was better than outdoor air. It was.

But that test had some limitations. My first particle counter didn’t have a battery, so I had to estimate outdoor particulate in some locations. I also didn’t look into any variables that could give some indoor locations better air than others.

Shanghai Test

Now I’ve got a fancy new Dylos DC1700 battery-power particle counter! Now I can easily take measurements indoors and outdoors. Here’s what it looks like:


I took it to Shanghai and tested 14 times in 11 locations on August 27-29. While I was there, the AQI averaged 158 (70 micrograms). I tested mostly around the French Concession, although I also made it out to Fudan University. None of the locations use air purifiers.


I tested in any type of place I could, and I mean any place. Here’s what I recorded in a public bathroom stall:



I focused on the smaller 0.5 micron particles (which are highly correlated with government PM 2.5 readings). Across the 14 samples, here’s what I found. The red line represents how many particles were in outdoor air.

On average, indoor air had just 69% of the particles of outdoor air.

Why do some places have cleaner air?

This fits with my findings in Beijing–indoor air has less particulate than outdoor air. But next I wanted to see if I could figure out why some places had cleaner air than others. For example, my unpurified apartment air (unpurified because I just got home) had just 30% of particles compared to outdoors, but the public bathroom had 134% of particles compared to outdoors. Woah!

I tested the simplest explanation possible: Were the windows and doors open? Most particulate pollution comes from outside. And in closed rooms, particles will slowly fall to the ground. Thus, indoor air should be better when the windows are doors are closed.

To test that idea, I looked only at places that had doors or windows open:


Yikes! If the doors or windows are open, I was breathing air that was basically as bad as outdoor air (92%). For example, here was how air compared indoors and outdoors in the public bathroom:


But things were much better in places with the doors and windows closed:l

With the doors and windows closed, the air had 57% of the particles of outdoors. For example, here’s the air inside Fudan University’s Economics Institute versus outdoors:z

In places where the doors and windows were closed, the air was always better than outside. The one exception was the Yuanyuan Restaurant, at 115%. Those particles could be coming from the kitchen.

So what?

The conclusion here is simple: We’re usually breathing much less particulate indoors than outdoors–even without a purifier.

Clean Lung Tips

  1. Work out indoors if possible. I work out indoors in a gym rather than outdoors when I’m in China.
  2. Sit inside at cafes or bars (unless people are smoking).

Does that mean indoor air is safe?

Indoor air has less particulate, but remember that “less particulate” does not always mean “safe.” Out of all 14 tests, NONE of the numbers was below the WHO 24-hour PM 2.5 limit:


One Last Exception

Finally, remember that pollutants can sometimes come from indoors. This is usually from the paints and chemicals used in remodeling and new furniture. If your home smells like paint or new furniture, you may be safer opening the windows (or at least using activated carbon).


Can Activated Carbon Remove Formaldehyde?

“Formaldehyde” (甲醛) is a surprisingly common word in China. I say surprising because I’m from the US, where only scientists and high schoolers dissecting frogs tend to be familiar with the chemical.

But it’s not because Chinese people are all nerds. At dinner with Chinese colleagues, my friend David once used the word “carbohydrate” (碳水化合物) and was instantly made fun of for using a “science word” in casual conversation. Why the double standard? Because in China, just like carbs in America, formaldehyde is an everyday health concern.

What’s the big deal?

Why are they so concerned? Formaldehyde causes scary health problems like ulcers and cancer, yet it’s common in construction materials and new furniture. The people who should worry the most are people in new or recently renovated homes. Tests of new and renovated homes routinely find high levels of formaldehyde.

Why formaldehyde is so hard to remove

Formaldehyde is a tricky problem because it escapes from materials as a gas, and HEPA filters aren’t made to capture gases. I’ve heard companies claim that activated carbon can remove formaldehyde, but I’ve also seen companies selling sprays that claim to clear formaldehyde from your home. That sounds a lot like snake oil to me.

Since there’s a profit motivation for companies to claim they can get rid of formaldehyde, I wanted to empirically test whether carbon actually works.


In my quest for an answer, the first stumbling block was detecting formaldehyde. Many companies on Taobao will sell you a “formaldehyde detector”, but they’re actually general VOC detectors. (There are lots of volatile organic compounds; formaldehyde is one type.) So even if the machine tells you it’s detecting formaldehyde, you have no way of knowing whether it’s formaldehyde or some other VOC.

Thus, to be absolutely sure we were detecting formaldehyde, my collaborator Anna bought bottles of liquid formaldehyde–risking our health for science!


To spread it in the room, we put it in a rice cooker along with 250 ml of water in a 4.14m2 porch (volume 10.35m3). When the rice cooker heats up, it releases formaldehyde as a gas into the air.


The Industrial Scientific MX6 detects different types of VOCs, not formaldehyde specifically. But because we released formaldehyde in the room, we can be sure that VOC is formaldehyde.


To attack the formaldehyde, Anna put a composite activated carbon filter on the Cannon.


Anna turned the cooker and the fan on at the same time and let them run until the VOC level fell back to zero. We also ran a control test with a fan only. We ran a total of three carbon tests and two fan-only tests.


Here’s what one of the carbon tests looked like, starting from the peak formaldehyde level:


But we need to be sure that’s the effect of the carbon, not just the formaldehyde dispersing over time. To do that, we need to compare those results to the fan-only condition. Here’s what the two tests look like side by side:


The formaldehyde levels stayed higher for longer in the fan-only condition, but the levels dropped much quicker when we used carbon.

I averaged across all three carbon tests and compared the average reduction compared to the fan-only condition. On average, the carbon reduced formaldehyde levels to 50% within 15 minutes of the peak formaldehyde levels and then down 0% by 25 minutes.



These composite activated carbon filters removed formaldehyde from the air. My earlier tests show that these filters remove other types of VOCs too.

Does everyone need carbon?

Studies have found that formaldehyde is much more common in new and recently remodeled homes, so people in new or remodeled homes probably need carbon. However, my MX6 found zero VOCs in ALL apartments I tested except for places that had recent renovation or smoking.

Now, there could be VOCs at levels lower than the MX6 can detect, so I’m not confident to say there are ZERO VOCs in most houses. But I think it’s reasonable to say that carbon filters are not mandatory for homes without obvious sources of formaldehyde or other VOCs.

Do I still need a HEPA?

Activated carbon is made to get smells and gases like VOCs. It is not designed to get particulate in general. In fact, activated carbon is made to be as porous as possible to get as much air into contact with the carbon. And my tests with a carbon filter alone show that it is does not remove high amounts of small particles. Thus, we still need a HEPA.

As always, I’m including the raw data and more details on the testing for fellow nerds.



The raw data is a large file, so I’m making it available as a download. Here is the summary data:



Check out my earlier VOC tests for more details on the MX6 detector, placement of the detector, and the fan-only control condition. Conditions were identical except for the pollution source.

How do we know the detector was actually detecting formaldehyde?

I wanted to test whether the MX6 was detecting the formaldehyde and not the heat and humidity coming from the electric cooker. To test that, I also ran a condition where I filled the rice cooker with water, but no formaldehyde. In that condition, the MX6 read zero:


That tells us that the MX6 wasn’t mistaking heat or water for formaldehyde.


Similar to my earlier VOC tests, one limitation is that the formaldehyde here was not naturally occurring. It would be ideal to find a house that was recently remodeled and already has formaldehyde in it because that would be a closer approximation of how most people would use it.

However, one difficulty of that sort of test is that the VOC detector wouldn’t be able to tell us if we’re detecting formaldehyde or other VOCs. In one sense, that’s not important–we want to get rid of all of them. But it would also be interesting to know if we’re getting formaldehyde specifically. To do that, we would need to take gas samples and have them sent to a lab (although if anyone knows of an easier way to detect formaldehyde and only formaldehyde, let me know).