When Americans travel abroad, one of the most common concerns is the quality of water in their destination country. But I have found that air quality can often be a bigger concern, mostly because it sneaks up on you and it can be difficult to avoid air pollution once you are on the ground in another country.
With water, you can buy bottled water, ask for filtered water, or bring along your own purifier or tablets. But when you are in a city that has bad or even dangerous air pollution, often your only option is to stay indoors in air conditioning. Spending your vacation avoiding the outdoors is probably not your plan.
While in Kathmandu I was prepared for some smog. We were staying at a hotel that didn’t have any rooms with air conditioning available, and, after we had spent a night there, we were suffering from burning eyes, cough, and sinus pain. I could feel the lymph nodes in my neck getting swollen and sensitive. We decided we would have to switch hotels. Fortunately, the local hotel where we were staying needed our room because they were overbooked, so we were able to get out of our reservation and made everyone happy. We were able to find a more modern hotel with air conditioning and made the move.
That day the wind was tearing through the city and the amount of dust in the air was noticeable and uncomfortable. My husband was really struggling by the end of the day and we were happy that we would be spending the night in an air conditioned room.
The next day I opened the window curtains to find a heavy haze across the city. The day before we could see the mountains in the distance, but they were no longer visible through the brown cloud. We decided to stay indoors, spent time in the gym, rested, and finally went out for dinner when the smog seemed to have eased up.
One tool that I found helpful that day was the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s website Air Now Department of State. Using this website while we were in Kathmandu made it possible to actually see the data that said that the air quality had improved and we were safe to go outside of our hotel. Air Now provides air quality data for embassies in:
- Bahrain: Manama;
- Bangladesh: Dhaka;
- China: Beijing, Ghuangzhou, Shenyang;
- Colombia: Bogota;
- Ethiopia: Addis Ababa Central and Addis Ababa School;
- India: New Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Hyderabad;
- Indonesia: Jakara South and Jakarta Central;
- Kosovo: Pristina;
- Kuwait: Kuwait City;
- Mongolia: Ulaanbaatar;
- Nepal: Embassy Kathmandu, Phora Darbur;
- Peru: Lima;
- Sri Lanka: Colombo
- Uganda: Kampala;
- United Arab Emirates: Abu Dhabi;
- Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi
To be clear, I recognize that the United States has its own share of air quality issues. For example, inversions in Denver and Salt Lake City (when the cold air sits on top of smog and holds it in the valley) create dangerous situations for the sick, elderly and children. But the pollution in some other countries reaches a level that should be considered when planning a visit. It took weeks for my husband to get rid of his cough from our days in Kathmandu.
When I was in Chengdu, China, I struggled with the air pollution and finally chose to wear a medical mask at night. I had brought a couple of masks and found that wearing one while sleeping seemed to help (there was no air conditioning at the hotel where I was staying.) It seemed to help a little, but it wasn’t until I moved to a hotel with air conditioning that I felt better.
I’ll likely avoid visiting cities that have bad air pollution, but if I ever find it necessary to be in a place with poor air quality I will bring a better mask with me. Time Out Beijing has some recommendations. The trick is to bring the mask with you, rather than try to purchase it in another country. And, I recognize that I’m not likely to wear a mask while touring – it’s just too uncomfortable.
While having information, resources, and tools can help deal with travel that takes us through smoggy cities, I’ll stick with blue skies, wide open nature, and the crisp clean air of more remote travel destinations.
Other helpful websites:
- Air Quality Index, look up cities, explore the maps
- Europe Air Quality Now
- Canada Air Quality Health Index
- WHO Air Quality data by country (While this website is interesting, I don’t find this terribly useful – you need to be looking at more specific areas than an entire country. For instance, once in Nepal the mountains and countryside don’t suffer from air pollution as much as the cities.)