My intuition has always been that there is least air pollution at night because there are fewer cars on the road and fewer factories humming at that time of day.
Pollution Time of Day Guesses
Apparently I’m not alone: 139 voted for their guess about what time of day has the least air pollution (lowest PM2.5), and night time came in first.
I also know people who arrange their schedules to work out in the morning to avoid the worst pollution. But how accurate are our intuitions?
Time of Day Pollution Data
To get to the bottom of it, I analyzed thousands of hours of PM2.5 data from the US Embassy in Beijing. When I finally got the answer, I was surprised:
Instead of during the quiet of night, it’s the afternoon–right around rush hour–that PM2.5 is the lowest. So if you’re planning a picnic or insist on exercising outside, you’re usually best off between noon and 6pm.
What about other cities?
Is that how PM2.5 generally works, or is it unique to Beijing’s activity or climate? Fortunately, US consulates in several other cities publish their historical data.
In terms of climate, Shenyang is pretty similar to Beijing, and its daily PM2.5 patterns are very similar (although night time isn’t quite as bad as Beijing):
The pattern in Chengdu is similar. PM2.5 is lowest in the afternoon and highest in the morning.
The picture starts changing when you get to the south. In Shanghai, PM2.5 is lowest in the afternoon (like the north), but there’s also a dip in the very early morning:
But also note that the scale is really zoomed in for Shanghai and Guangzhou (below). The difference between the lowest and the highest averages for Shanghai is only about 4 micrograms, as opposed to about 25 micrograms in Beijing.
Guangzhou’s pattern was virtually identical to Shanghai’s: a dip in the very early morning and a dip in the afternoon.
Pollution and Time of Day Worldwide
Maybe this is just a China pattern? A 2018 study analyzed data from all around the world, and found a similar pattern–PM2.5 tends to be lowest in the afternoon.
Bottom Line: What time of day is it safest to be outside?
In all five cities, the afternoon had the lowest PM2.5 levels. And in contrast to many people’s intuition, the night time had the worst air in several cities. Thus, you’re usually best off organizing your picnic or tai chi in the afternoon.
But keep in mind that the air is NEVER safe on average in any of the five cities at any time of day. So take “safest” with a grain of salt!
Why Is Pollution Best at Rush Hour?
How does it make any sense that pollution is the lowest during rush hour? Read more on why pollution is worse at night.
All of the data is available from the US Embassy and consulate websites. Thanks to Josh Malina for collecting and analyzing the consulate data.
Caveat: Gas Pollutants
It’s important to point out that this analysis uses data on particulate pollution. There are other types of pollution out there. One big one is ozone pollution, which tends to be highest around midday.
Thomas is an Associate Professor of Behavior Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the founder of Smart Air, a social enterprise to help people in China breathe clean air without shelling out thousands of dollars for expensive purifiers.