China’s indoor air pollution highlights rural-urban divide

China’s “war on pollution” has driven a reduction in coal use, prioritising green technology, energy and buildings, and closing or moving factories out of urban areas. Since the announcement there have been significant improvements to China’s air quality. New analysis by the University of Chicago found Chinese cities have cut PM2.5, tiny particulate matter in the air, by 32 per cent on average since 2013.

Awareness of indoor air pollution, however, has been much slower, even though indoor air can be far worse than outside. As well as PM2.5 entering homes and offices from outside through open windows or poorly insulated buildings, high levels of chemicals such as formaldehyde, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and carbon dioxide are a serious concern, often resulting from building materials, paints, and adhesives.

Yet concern over indoor air pollution has been mounting. At the time of the severe smog in 2013, there were only 3.1 million air purifiers in China, according to business intelligence company Euromonitor. By the end of this year the analyst predicts a doubling in size to 7.5 million air purifiers. The market will be worth nearly 16.5 billion yuan (US$ 2.6 billion).

Keen to attract top-level talent, companies in the big cities are building offices with high quality air filtration systems, and hotels are advertising the air quality inside their guest rooms.

Property consultancy JLL has built its Shanghai office to high-specification international WELL standards (which measure the impact of the built environment on human health), gaining recognition as the healthiest in the Asia-Pacific region and the third healthiest in the world. Developers such as Tishman Speyer are installing high-end clean air filtration in the core and shell of buildings across their whole China portfolio.

China-based architect Raefer Wallis launched the green building standard RESET based on the need he saw in China for better quality building materials and healthier environments. A RESET-certified space must be within healthy limits for PM2.5, carbon dioxide, VOCs, and other pollutants for three consecutive months, and is re-assessed annually.

Like many environmental health threats, indoor air quality receives less attention than it merits because it is difficult to attribute any given health problem to any given environmental pollutant.

Sieren Ernst, founder, Ethics & Environment

“Clients say they don’t care which standard you use to build the building, they want to know how it performs on a daily basis,” says Wallis. “The market is shifting towards performance, and so the use of reliable data is massive. Previously there was nobody focused on data.”

RESET is now used by companies across the world, the first example of building standards starting in China and moving internationally.

In another sign of China leading the indoor air debate, a large research institute is set to open this year in Beijing. A collaboration between Chinese developer Sino Ocean Group, American real estate firm Delos, the Mayo Clinic and SuperImpose Architecture, the research centre is designed to generate evidence on how to create healthier indoor spaces in future homes and offices.

“Compared with a couple of years ago, we are seeing more and more interest from local clients, where it used to be mostly international clients,” explains Tom Watson, director of engineering at environmental consultancy PureLiving.

Wealthier urban consumers have already shown a propensity to vote with their feet when it comes to pollution. A series of studies concluded that real estate prices in Beijing were lower by an average of 4 per cent in polluted neighbourhoods.

“People want to have the feeling that they are looked after by the company—it’s not only the dollars and cents but the things the company does to improve employee wellbeing,” says Xuchao Wu, head of energy and sustainability services at JLL Greater China.

Healthy indoor air is also in the interest of employers. A landmark 2017 study from Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment found occupants of high-performing green buildings showed higher cognitive functions, fewer symptoms of sickness, and higher sleep quality. A separate 2016 study concluded that higher levels of air pollution decreased worker productivity.

However, the galloping market for healthy indoor health is predominantly led by urban citizens, with some evidence suggesting a growing rural-urban divide in access to clean air.

“Central government has said it wants to clean up the air, the water and the soil, so they put pressure on local officials on this, and on average the awareness among local officials will increase over time,” says Professor Zheng Siqi, faculty director of China Future City Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“However, China has hundreds of cities, and in poor places they still put growth as the first priority and thus lag behind in environmental protection.”

A Greenpeace analysis found that PM2.5 levels in Beijing, Tianjin and 26 other cities declined 33.1 per cent year-on-year in the last three months of 2017. But for the full year it fell just 4.5 per cent around the country, the lowest rate of decline since 2013. In poorer rural provinces such as Heilongjiang, Anhui, Jiangxi and Guangdong, pollution levels increased.

The lasting impact of this rural-urban divide could be stark. A 2004 study concluded that the effect of pollution is greater for children of lower socio-economic status, while Professor Zheng’s research concludes that air pollution increases school absences and lowers test scores. Top-level schools and wealthier residents are installing indoor air filters that may give their children an academic advantage. The high cost of such air filters means they are out of reach for many rural residents, who typically rely on coal heaters in poorer regions of the country.

While China’s government has put a lot of focus on improving the outdoor air quality in China’s cities, improving indoor air quality has been largely driven from the bottom-up.

“Like many environmental health threats, indoor air quality receives less attention than it merits because is difficult to attribute any given health problem to any given environmental pollutant,” says Sieren Ernst, founder of environmental consultancy Ethics & Environment.

“The research required to attribute health problems to a single, or a combination of, indoor toxins is expensive, and it is often unclear whose responsibility it is to do this research,” she says.

“Problems with off-gassing substances [VOCs released by new manufactured products] are persistent, well-known, and have likely affected the indoor air quality of much of the world. But to manage these problems often requires regulating many different influential industry actors to control exposures that are happening in private spaces.”

The complexity of dealing with poor indoor air quality has resulted in a regulatory blind spot for the government. In China, consumers and voluntary standards look set to keep driving the market, at least for now.

“The indoor pollution field is still demand-driven; people know there are health risks and are beginning to understand more, so they are pushing both the market and government regulation, and demanding more green products,” concludes Professor Zheng.

“If they have a higher demand for green products, there will be a higher supply, as well as more regulations.”

This story was originally published by Chinadialogue under a Creative Commons’ License and republished with permission.

Thanks for reading to the end of this story!

We would be grateful if you would consider joining as a member of The EB Circle. This helps to keep our stories and resources free for all, and it also supports independent journalism dedicated to sustainable development. It only costs as little as S$5 a month, and you would be helping to make a big difference.

Find out more and join The EB Circle