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Smog: Its impact on your health and insurance

Pacific Prime China talks about air pollution in Beijing, its impact on health, and what it could mean for your health insurance.

Posted on Dec 10, 2015 by Rob McBroom

China is known for many things: amazing history, diverse geography, people, and food. Read any news about China from the past few weeks however, and almost all of it will be centered on the increasingly bad air pollution, especially in Beijing. People living in the region know they will have to deal with air pollution but they may not be aware of its negative health effects, the impact it could have on your health insurance, and what you can do to minimize breathe a little easier.

The current situation

As you likely already know, the last week of November and first week of December saw a marked increase in the air pollution in Beijing. On December 7 the government announced that it would raise its first ever three-day "red alert" largely due to the forecast that predicted that air pollution was at its peak. This subsequently went into effect December 8 and saw actions taken to reduce the amount of pollution in the air. These actions include:

  • Closing of primary and secondary schools
  • Removal of 50% of public vehicles from the road
  • Removal of 30% of civic vehicles from the road
  • Cancellation of all outdoor sports at universities
  • Limiting of construction and other industry in the capital region

During this red-alert, news outlets like the SCMP reported that, "The capital’s air quality index hit 400 yesterday [Monday Dec 7] evening, a level classified as “hazardous” and more than 100 higher than the highest level on Monday."

According to numerous sources, including the Independent, "Smog in Beijing is caused by the burning of coal for industry and heating, and huge amounts of dust from the city’s many construction sites. The problem is being made yet worse by high humidity and low wind."

How does air pollution impact your health?

It is pretty obvious from pictures posted on social media sites, and on news articles that the air is unhealthy, but the question is just how bad is it to your health? According to the WHO, air pollution can be attributed to 7 million deaths each year worldwide; air with more than 25 micrograms of PM2.5 (small particles of pollutants found in the air) is considered harmful to a person's health.

Beijing was reported to have anywhere between 200 and 290 micrograms in the air on Tuesday December 7, with some news sources reporting that in parts of the city 400 micrograms had been recorded.

When pollution reaches high levels people will suffer both short and long-term health effects. In the short term, these include:

  • Respiratory problems - especially in children and elderly who have ongoing lung conditions like COPD and asthma. Most will notice that it is considerably harder to breathe and will need to increase medication.
  • Heart problems - people who are suffering heart-related problems like coronary artery disease or congestive heart failure will find symptoms aggravated or even triggered.
  • Dry throat, runny eyes, a bad taste in the back of your mouth, a cough - all caused by irritants in the air

These can be serious issues, which will usually increase in severity as the air pollution gets worse. However, there are not just short-term health concerns around air pollution. It's really the long-term health effects that prolonged exposure can bring about that has people in Beijing, and indeed other parts of China, worried. According to Spare the Air, these include:

  • Accelerated aging of the lungs
  • Loss of lung capacity
  • Decreased lung function
  • Development of diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and possibly cancer
  • Shortened life span

 One of the biggest concerns, as we covered in a previous article, is lung cancer and how air pollution has impacted it in China. Click here to read more about it.

What does this mean for health insurance?

So, we know that air pollution can have a serious impact on our health, the question many have asked us in the past is how this impacts health insurance. The worst case scenario we can come up with is if this pollution continues for an extended period of time, as in months or more. Should this happen you can be sure that the number of people visiting the doctor with the above conditions will increase dramatically. If they have health insurance and submit claims you will see premiums subsequently increase. It appears however, that the government is starting to take air pollution levels seriously and is starting to take steps to reduce it. In reality, premiums should not increase substantially due to short periods of increased pollution.

The real issue is for people living in cities that have poor air quality like Beijing, and who already have health insurance. If you already have a plan and develop asthma or COPD from the air pollution, and require medicine or regular care, you will be covered. The problem lies in the event of changing health insurance providers. If you are diagnosed and then switch providers, the new plan likely will consider your existing health issues a pre-existing condition, and therefore deny coverage. This will result in increased medical bills for you or anyone on that plan.

It is therefore pertinent for anyone in Beijing to have a strong health insurance plan that can help cover both short term and long term medical conditions that can stem from air pollution.

Can anything be done to minimize health impacts from air pollution  

If you live in Beijing, it will be hard to avoid the pollution completely, so it would be a wise idea to invest in a pollution mask to wear when you are outside. Experts also recommend that, when the pollution is really bad, limiting your activity can help reduce your exposure to harmful particles in the air. This is especially important for children and the elderly, who are more sensitive to pollutants in the air. It would also be beneficial to follow government warnings and local news sources which will post warnings. Sites like Berkeleyearth, which has a real-time map of air pollution in China, can also help.

Beyond that, you could also look into improving the quality of air indoors. In a previous article, we talked with Allen Emil Adamusiak – Senior Air Quality Specialist at Renaud Air who explained, “Indoor air quality is one of the most important, yet overlooked, issues that have a huge impact on your health. As we never know what exactly is in the air, in China, it is vital to protect yourself, and your family from harmful air pollution. An article released in 2013 gives evidence that in parts of China your life expectancy may be shortened by over 5 years and with more emissions being released each year due to an expanding economy this number will only rise.

One of the best methods to protect your family, while avoiding hospital visits related to pollution, is to use a premium air purifier in each bedroom and living room in your home. You should look for a product that uses HEPA filtration that also has a layer of Activated Carbon in the filter. HEPA filters remove 99.97% of PM 2.5 particles that we breathe. While activated Carbon is key in adsorbing hazardous gases, chemicals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).     

You never want to regret taking a post in China and it having a negative effect on your or your child’s health. Especially with the young being so vulnerable. It is always best to take extra precautions.”

If you would like to learn more about air pollution and health insurance, please feel free to reach out to our experts today, or contact us to get a free quote on health insurance.



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