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January 16, 2013

Beijing's Air Pollution Delivers the Goods for Online Retailers

By Jacqueline Lee, Contributing Writer

There’s always a profit to be made in capitalism. Last Saturday in Beijing, concentrations of the dangerous pollutant PM2.5 increased to 886 micrograms per cubic meter. At the same time, online retailers like Alibaba.com saw a spike in the sale of facemasks and a dramatic increase in inquiries about medications and air purifiers.

Air conditioners can decrease indoor exposure to pollutants, but owning an air conditioner in Beijing is an out-of-reach luxury for most residents. Air conditioners list at 20,000 yuan ($3,200) on leading websites, and they’re usually only found in the most exclusive households.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), prolonged and repeated exposure to air pollutants and small particulates is associated with cardiac inflammation and increased risk of mortality. Additionally, a 2012 Greenpeace study projected that air pollution would cost Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an about $1.08 billion in economic losses and about 8,600 lives.

Over the weekend, some hospitals saw as much as a 50 percent increase in the number of patients seeking treatment for respiratory problems and difficulty breathing. Simultaneously, sites like Taobao and Tmall moved 10,000 facemasks, a jump of 130 percent in sales.

This weekend’s spike in PM2.5 was 35 times the World Health Organization’s recommended standard, and a sharp increase in sales of products like facemasks indicates that more Beijing residents may be more concerned about pollution than ever before. PM2.5 is particularly dangerous because the particulates can penetrate body tissue.

The AHA recommends that people avoid outdoor exercise in polluted areas and travelers should avoid smog-covered cities whenever possible. Of course, that’s easier said than done when the smog is covering the capitol city of an economic powerhouse like China.

When the acrid smoke clears, Beijing residents can return to normal life without the fear of illness or respiratory problems. And even when future smog arises, many Beijing residents will be prepared with facemasks thanks to the convenience of online retail.

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Edited by Brooke Neuman
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