Earlier this month the Shenyang EPA reported the worse levels of air pollution since record keeping began: Estimates varied between 1000 and 1400 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5— the fine particulate matter that has deadly health consequences. The US embassy in Shenyang reported “off the chart” recordings.

In our recent study in PLOS on air pollution in China we estimated that the Chinese residents are typically exposed to roughly 50 micrograms per cubic meter and that this exposure results in roughly 1.6 million deaths per year, or 17% of all deaths. The US EPA recommends that long-term exposure to this particulate matter be limited to no more than 12 micrograms per cubic meter.

Concentrations of 1000 to 1400, roughly 100 times want the EPA advises, are hard to fathom. A picture is worth 1400 words

TOPSHOTS This picture taken on November 8, 2015 shows a residential block covered in smog in Shenyang, China's Liaoning province.  A swathe of China was blanketed with dangerous acrid smog after levels of the most dangerous particulates reached almost 50 times World Health Organization maximums.         CHINA OUT AFP PHOTOSTR/AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOTS
This picture taken on November 8, 2015 shows a residential block covered in smog in Shenyang, China’s Liaoning province. A swathe of China was blanketed with dangerous acrid smog after levels of the most dangerous particulates reached almost 50 times World Health Organization maximums. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTOSTR/AFP/Getty Images

In terms of health effects we could put it this way: breathing 1400 micrograms is the equivalent of every person smoking roughly 3 packs of cigarettes a day, or 60 cigarettes.

As Live Science reports:

That much pollution is “a big deal,” said Dr. Norman Edelman, a senior consultant for scientific affairs with the American Lung Association.

Fine particulate matter is dangerous for human health because the particles are so tiny that they can bypass the body’s normal defense systems, such as the mucus membranes that line the mouth and nose. The particles can penetrate deep into the lungs, and sometimes can even pass through the tissue of the lungs and enter the bloodstream, Edelman said.

Particulate pollution is hard to escape because its sources are so prevalent in modern cities and towns. But breathing in these superfine particles damages the respiratory tract, experts say, and it can worsen people’s pre-existing conditions and increase the risk of new  infections.

If you look at an area that is subjected to spikes in pollution, you’ll see an increase in hospital admissions for lung and heart disease.

The peak values recorded in Shenyang don’t tell the entire story. Levels throughout the prefecture hit hazardous levels. Below see an map of PM2.5 in China recorded at the time of the peak pollution.

Shenyang

As the chart indicates the values exceeded the highest EPA classification of “Hazardous” and were not confined to the city.  In fact, these are the highest levels Berkeley Earth has observed anywhere in China during the 19 months that we have been archiving real-time observations.

In Northeastern China, it is not uncommon for air pollution to spike October / November. At this time of year, many municipal heating systems reactivate their coal-burning boilers for the winter. That activation process is accompanied by a large surge in fine particulate emissions, much higher than normal operating conditions. That activation, coupled with weather conditions that trapped particulates at low altitudes, is likely to be the immediate cause of this year’s historic haze in Shenyang. A similar, but less severe peak was seen at a similar time last year:

Shenyang2
Particulate pollution levels averaged for Shenyang Prefecture. Peaks in late October / early November are likely the result of reactivating municipal heating systems. Also visible is a peak coinciding to the use of fireworks during Chinese New Year in February. The prefecture average peak of nearly 800 is less than the highest levels observed in the city itself.

Currently Berkeley Earth is continuing its research into air pollution collecting real time data from China and other parts of the far east, while expanding our scope to include european states. Current PM2.5 conditions for China and Japan can be observed on our real-time map. As regions are added they will be included in the real time maps and added to the data archives located here.