Indoor Air vs Outdoor Air: Which is Dirtier?

In places with heavy air pollution, going outside can often be daunting. Countries likes China, India and Indonesia see outdoor air pollution levels over 10 times the World Health Organisation safe limit. But are indoor PM2.5 levels any better ?

I’ve tested indoor and outdoor locations around Beijing to see whether indoor air quality was better than outdoors. It was. But that’s just one city, and I didn’t take into account some variables that could affect the indoor and outdoor air pollution.


Outdoor vs. Indoor Air Quality Test – Shanghai


That’s why I decided to run a new test with my Dylos DC1700 battery-power particle counter. This time, I measured pollution levels in Shanghai.


Comparison test of indoor and outdoor air quality AQI


I took it to Shanghai and tested 14 times in 11 locations on August 27-29, 2015. While I was there, the PM2.5 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 used air purifiers.


Shanghai Indoor Outdoor Air Quality Test Sample Sites


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


Test indoor air quality in bathroom toilet

Indoor Air Quality Test Results

I focused on the smaller 0.5 micron particles (which are highly correlated with the government’s PM2.5 readings). Across the 14 samples, here’s what I found. The red line represents the particulate levels of outdoor air. Any number below that line means air indoor had less particulate than outdoor air.


Indoor and Outdoor Air Quality PM2.5 Test Results in Shanghai


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:


Shanghai Indoor Outdoor Air Quality Test 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:


Effect of open doors and windows on air quality in public bathroom


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


Shanghai Indoor Outdoor Air Quality Test Doors Closed PM2.5


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:


Shanghai Indoor Outdoor Air Quality Test Fudan PM2.5


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 PM2.5 limit:


Shanghai Indoor Outdoor Air Quality Test Safe 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).

P.S. How is indoor air quality in India?

Hint: it was different from China. Check out what I found when I tested indoor and outdoor particulate pollution in Delhi.


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