20080317-BeijingAirQlty env news.jpg
Beijing on a bad day
and good day
Of the 20 dirtiest cities on the globe, 16 are in China, according to the World Bank. Four Chinese cities---Linfen, in the heart of Shanxi Province’s coal country, and Tianying, a lead mining and processing center and Lanzhou and Urumqi—have made the top 10 on a list of the world’s most polluted cities by the Blacksmith Institute. Other cities with the extremely bad air pollution include Golmud, Shijiazhuang, Shizuishan, Datong, Taiyuan, Jilin, Hechi and Zhuzhou. Most of these cities are in the north, where blowing dust combines with industrial pollutants. Three Chinese cities---Tianying, Huaxi and Wanshan---made the top 10 list for cities in the world with the worst pollution by heavy metals. Space shuttle astronaut Jay Apt wrote in National Geographic, "many of the great coastal cites of China hide from our cameras under a...blanket of smoke from soft-coal fires." The northeast industrial town of Benxi is so polluted that it once disappeared from satellite photos. Its residents have the highest rate of lung disease in China.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “ Increasingly, air pollution is changing everyday life. Face masks are becoming more ubiquitous in the cities, and some affluent parents increasingly choose schools more for their air filtration systems than for their academics. The environment is emerging as a potent political issue.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, March 21, 2013]

Brian Spegele wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “People who want to live in a Chinese city with acceptable air quality can try the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, the island city of Haikou, the coastal town of Zhoushan or the Pearl River Delta city of Huizhou. That's it. No other major population center in the country makes the cut, according to a report by China’s environment ministry on air pollution in the first half of 2013. [Source: Brian Spegele, Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2013 <+>]

“Levels of airborne PM2.5—particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter—measured on average 76 micrograms per cubic meter across 74 large urban areas in China from January through the end of June, the ministry said. That’s more than seven times the World Health Organization ‘s recommended exposure of less than 10 micrograms per cubic meter over the course of a year. The WHO advises exposure to levels less than 25 micrograms per cubic meter over a 24 period. Among all 74 cities, only Lhasa, Haikou, Zhoushan and Huizhou met the national grade-2 standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter, the ministry noted. <+>

“The results, while grim, are part of a wider reckoning for the government and ordinary Chinese who viewed deteriorating air quality in many areas as a serious threat to public health. Calls for the government improve air quality surged this past winter, when swaths of the country were blanketed by rarely seen air-pollution levels.<+>

Growing vehicle traffic and industrial output such as steel production, among a variety of other sources have contributed to rising PM 2.5 levels in recent years. An official from the environment ministry was quoted by the state-run Xinhua news agency this week as saying the central government would invest 1.7 trillion yuan ($280 billion) in the coming years in efforts to control air pollution. The news agency quoted another official as saying a draft of the action plan to control air and water pollution would be published within the year. <+>

Worst air pollution in China: 1) Lanzhou (150 ug/m3 ); 2) Xining; 3) Urumqi; 4) Jinan; 5) Beijing (121 ug/m3 ); 6) Xian; 7) Chengdu; 8) Hefei; 9) Shenyang; 10) Taiyuan; 11) Chongqing; 12) Wuhan (105. ug/m3 ). The reading for Shanghai is 81 ug/m3 The reading for Hong Kong is 121 ug/m3. [Source: World Health Organization (WHO), MIT, mostly for the years 2008 and 2009, ug/m3 means micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter ]

Levels of suspended particles: (micrograms per cubic meter, 1995): Beijing (370); Shanghai (246); Chongqing (322); Taiyuan (568); Bangkok (200); Los Angeles (76); New York (59); Tokyo (55). Levels of sulfur dioxide (micrograms per cubic meter, 1995): Beijing (94); Shanghai (53); Chongqing (338); Taiyuan (424); Bangkok (13); Los Angeles (8); New York (26); Tokyo (22). Levels of particles of smoke in Asian cities (micrograms per cubic meter from 1987 to 1990): Calcutta (400); Beijing (380); Jakarta (280); Hong Kong (120); Bangkok (100); Manila (95); Tokyo (50); New York (60).

Public Outrage in China Over Air Pollution

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, In 2013, “many Chinese have expressed fury and frustration over the surging levels of air pollution, especially in the north, which in January had record levels of particulate matter. Pollution levels have remained high this summer, and many foreigners and middle- or upper-class Chinese with children are looking to leave the country rather than tolerate the health risks. There has been growing outrage in Chinese cities over what many say are untenable levels of air pollution. Cities across the north hit record levels in January, and official Chinese newspapers ran front-page articles on the surge — what some foreigners call the “airpocalypse” — despite earlier limits on such discussion by propaganda officials. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 8, 2013 <>]

Jennifer Duggan wrote in The Guardian, “On the Chinese social media site Weibo, many users complained about the pollution in Harbin and shared their concerns. One user, Wei Bang Zhu, wrote on Tuesday "someone should take responsibility for the smog…the price of pursuing high-speed development is that people end up being fed with smog. To venture out in an environment like this would be equivalent to teasing about one's own health and life." References to "feed people with smog" have become popular on Weibo and is a sarcastic play on the expression "serve the people" as the two have a similar pronunciation. Another, Justop88, said: "Too horrible, it's like the end of the world in American movies." [Source: Jennifer Duggan, The Guardian, October 23, 2013]

David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Until recently, state media was loathe to use the word "pollution," opting instead for the euphemism "fog." But popular pressure is building, making it harder for policymakers to ignore the foul air in many of China's largest cities. After the staggeringly bad bout of air pollution in the middle of this month, micro-bloggers took to posting pictures of themselves online wearing masks. Some held handwritten signs that read, "I don't want to be a human vacuum cleaner." The phrase became the top-trending topic on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo, attracting several million hits. "Return my blue sky and white clouds," wrote a blogger named Xiao Yu. "If economic development needs to come with the price of such heavy pollution, I would rather go back to the 1980s." [Source: David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2013 >><<]

Air Pollution in Beijing

Ben Blanchard of Reuters wrote: “With its parks, centuries-old palaces, history and culture, Beijing should be one of the more pleasant capitals of the world. Instead, it's considered among the worst to live in because of chronic air pollution. Lung cancer rates are rising among the 20 million residents of China's capital, health officials say. For many multinational companies, Beijing is considered a hardship posting and, despite the extra allowances that classification brings, some executives are leaving. On some days, Beijing is enveloped in a brownish-grey smog, so thick it gets indoors, stings the eyes and darkens the sky in the middle of the day. [Source: Ben Blanchard, Reuters, July 29, 2012 <=>]

In 2011, the state-run China Daily quoted a Beijing health official as saying the lung cancer rate in the city had increased by 60 percent during the past decade, even though the smoking rate during the period had not seen an apparent rise. The Economist Intelligence Unit's liveability index this year ranked Beijing's pollution at 4.5, with 5 being the worst. Out of 70 cities surveyed, the only ones rated worse were Mumbai, New Delhi, Karachi, Dakar, Dhaka and Cairo. <=>

Don Lee wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Although Beijing officials have said sulfur dioxide counts have dropped in recent years, other major air quality measures and the soupy haze that often blankets the city tell a different story. China's rapid economic growth and urbanization have brought many more pollution-spewing vehicles to the city, and Beijing also has the misfortune of being surrounded by mountains that trap the soot-filled air from neighboring provinces that churn out huge amounts of steel, cement and other products for the domestic market. [Source: Don Lee, Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2013]

Beijing's smog is a noxious cocktail consisting mainly of heavy automobile exhausts, major coal-fired generators outside of the city and smaller ones located inside the city, as well as dust from construction sites. People sometimes joke that you can smell China’s GDP in the air. Peter Foster wrote in The Telegraph: “For most of the last two decades, Beijing's residents have endured dense smog caused by industry, coal-fired heating and traffic that increased at a rate of 1,000 vehicles a day. The government issues daily air pollution reports and occasionally warns the young, elderly and people with respiratory problems to remain inside. Even on many “blue sky days” pollution levels are considerably higher than the standards set by the World Health Organization. Red flags are raised outside my school classroom when it is too polluted to go out and play.[Source: Peter Foster, The Telegraph, August 16, 2010]

Why Air Pollution in Beijing Is So Bad

Ben Blanchard of Reuters wrote: ““Smoke from factories and heating plants, winds blowing in from the Gobi Desert and fumes from millions of vehicles can combine to blanket the city in this pungent shroud for days. English-speaking residents sometimes call the city "Greyjing" or "Beige-jing". One day in early December 2012, Beijing's smog was so severe it forced the main airport to shut for several hours. [Source: Ben Blanchard, Reuters, July 29, 2012 <=>]

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post: Beijing sits ringed by mountains on its north and west, so when a haze of pollution lumbers in, it just sits, and sits, and sits, until either strong winds or rains come along to push it off to the east. Technically, the stuff in the air is “particulate matter,” defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as dust, dirt, soot and smoke that comes from cars and power plants, like those in the provinces that surround Beijing. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, January 19 2012]

According to a January 2012 report by the Xinhua News Agency, research by Beijing authorities found that 60 percent of the smallest particulate matter in the city’s air comes from coal burning, car emissions and industrial production; 23 percent from dust; and 17 percent from the use of solvents. “The major problem is coal,” said Zhou Rong, a climate and energy campaigner for the environmental group Greenpeace, who wears a face mask when she goes outdoors and bought masks for her colleagues. “Cars are easier to control,” Zhou said. “It is really hard for any Chinese government body to say “no more coal.”

On several occasions, pollution combined with fog has been so bad that motorists have had to turn on their headlights in the middle of the day. "The fine particulate matter is what affects visibility and makes it look like a horrible foggy day," Cornell air quality expert Westerdahl told the New York Times. "It also is what most directly affects human health."

Living with Air Pollution in Beijing

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Even if they are fond of griping about bad air, Beijing residents have learned to take it all in stride. Looking wilted amid the heat and haze, Wang Dong, 34, a livery-cab driver, said he tried to counteract the smog by eating more vegetables and drinking more water. Annie Chen, 26, a sales clerk, revealed a tactic she had learned on television: apply an extra layer of makeup to protect skin from contaminated air. Then there was Zhang Hedan, 46, a street vendor who was fanning his flushed face with a piece of paper. Maybe it will blow away the dust, he said hopefully. He added, Well, maybe that not so effective, but at least I feel better psychologically.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, July 28, 2010]

On living with Beijing's air pollution, Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “After four years in Beijing, I’ve learned how to gauge the pollution before I open the curtains; by dawn on the smoggiest days, the lungs ache.” In 2008 “the U.S. Embassy installed an air monitor on the roof of one of its buildings, and every hour it posts the results to a Twitter feed, with a score ranging from 1, which is the cleanest air, to 500, the dirtiest. American cities consider anything above 100 to be unhealthy. The rare times in which an American city has scored above 300 have been in the midst of forest fires. In these cases, the government puts out public-health notices warning that the air is “hazardous” and that “everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors.” As I type this in Beijing, the Embassy’s air monitor says that today’s score is 500. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, December 21, 2009]

Ben Blanchard of Reuters wrote: “Some foreigners plan their daily events around the U.S. Embassy's Twitter feed on Beijing's air quality, which has hourly posts. "On a bad day, you're going to change your plans," said American Chauvon Venick, who moved to Beijing from Los Angeles with her lawyer husband and young daughter earlier this year. "You wake up, look outside and it's a great day, you skip whatever you're going to do and go outside to enjoy it. If it's a really bad day, maybe we'll go and do something inside. "I'm not going to have her out and about," Venick added, referring to her daughter. [Source: Ben Blanchard, Reuters, July 29, 2012 <=>]

"Pollution has reached such levels it can be hard convincing foreign executives to move to the city. "We can't get people to move here. Pollution is a big worry, especially if you have children," said a Beijing-based executive for a large Western financial services firm, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Beijing is considered a hardship posting nobody wants." Those taking advantage include companies that make air purifiers, which report booming business and count big foreign firms among their clients. "Sales last year were three times the average of what we had seen in previous years," said Zheng Hui, a sales consultant for Swiss company IQ Air, which entered the Chinese market more than five years ago." <=>

American jazz singer Patti Austin cancelled a scheduled concert at the Forbidden City Concert Hall in 2013 due to a "severe asthma attack" after arriving in the notoriously smog-ridden capital, according to a statement on her website.

See Car Restrictions, Olympics.

Anger Over Air Pollution in Beijing

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post: Residents long accustomed to a polluted, congested capital are starting to openly complain.”It's a fact that air pollution can damage your personal health,” Wang Xi, 29, a computer engineer, told the Washington Post. He said he has been riding a bicycle in the city for 10 years, first to school and now to work. He started wearing a high-tech mask after experiencing a sore throat. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, January 19 2012]

Complaints about air quality are a staple of conversation in Beijing. From recent Chinese microblog chats came such comments as: "Is it excrement floating in the air today? I'm almost choking to death!" "There is no quality of life when you can't be sure you're not breathing anything poisonous." Over the last year, interior designer Lu Weiwei and a photographer have been taking pictures of people against a backdrop of air, clear or polluted---observing that the mood of the people is often dependent on the air quality. "You don't need sophisticated instruments to tell you what is the air quality," Lu said. "You look up at the sky and if it's clear, it is a good day and you're happy---or not."

What residents find most frustrating is the knowledge that the government is capable of cleaning up the air. It was done in 2008, before the start of the Beijing Olympics, when factories were shut down and tough restrictions were imposed on cars. Shanghai did the same around the time of the Shanghai World Expo last year, and Guangzhou cleaned up in time for the 2010 Asian Games.

Off-the-Scale' Smog Grounds Flights in Beijing

In January 2012, AFP reported: More than 150 flights to and from Beijing were cancelled or delayed as a thick cloud of acrid smog shrouded the city, with US figures saying the pollution was so bad it was off-the-scale. The national meteorological centre said the Chinese capital had been hit by thick fog that reduced visibility to as little as 200m in some parts of the city, while official data judged air quality to be 'good'. [Source: AFP, January 11, 2012]

But the US embassy, which has its own pollution measuring system, said on its Twitter feed that the concentration of the smallest, most dangerous particles in the air was 'beyond index' for most of the morning. The US system measures particles in the air of 2.5 micrometers or less, known as PM2.5, considered the most dangerous for people's health.

The Washington Post reported: Traffic has been backed up more than usual because of the low visibility, and several highways were closed. Parents have been keeping their children indoors. Residents have been racing to buy air purifiers, oxygen generators and face masks.

Airpocalypse Air Pollution Strikes China in 2013

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In January, thanks to a combination of windless weather, rising temperatures and emissions from coal heating, Beijing experienced a prolonged spell of some of the worst air pollution on record, widely dubbed the “Airpocalypse.” From the capital to Guiyang, 1,100 miles to the southwest, pollution closed highways, forced the cancellation of flights and outdoor activities, and sent countless people to hospitals. Another spell of terrible air besieged the capital in late June. The episodes have raised debate about whether China is sacrificing too much of its citizens’ health for economic growth. In recent years, environmental degradation has sparked numerous protests across the nation, and Communist Party officials are well aware that the issue could spark a political crisis. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2013 <^>]

Jennifer Duggan wrote in The Guardian, “ Cityscapes shrouded in thick smog have become a common scene in China. Last winter, Beijing's 'airpocalypse' garnered headlines worldwide and generated much anger and debate within China. But this week, air pollution levels in the northeastern city of Harbin surpassed the previous record levels in Beijing.The city was essentially shut down after PM2.5, fine particulate pollution that is considered hazardous, reached levels of 1,000 micrograms per cubic metre – 40 times the safety level recommended by the World Health Organisation. Schools, motorways and an airport were closed on Tuesday as visibility in some areas of the city dropped to less than 10 metres. Photos from Harbin showed residents covering their mouths with masks and scarves, moving like ghostly shadows through the fog. Cars and motorcycles moving slowly as traffic came to a standstill with traffic lights barely visible. [Source: Jennifer Duggan, The Guardian, October 23, 2013]

On the wave of bad air in January 2013 Associated Press and the South China Morning Post reported: “China’s national weather service has said that the choking smog that wreaked havoc in large parts of the country is expected to stay for at least two more days. Worst-hit regions including Beijing, Hebei, Tianjin, Henan and Shandong are expected to continue to be covered in smog leaving visibility below one kilometre, in some areas even lower than 200 metres, said the National Meteorological Centre in Beijing. Thick layers of haze also cover a wide swathe of regions across southeastern and central China, affecting provinces such as Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Jiangxi, Hunan, Guizhou and Guanxi. The above-mentioned regions aren’t expected to see major relief until Wednesday, when a cold front coming down from the north is expected to clear away the haze and pollutants, said the centre. [Source: Associated Press, South China Morning Post, January 14, 2013]

"Worst on Record" Pollution Strikes Beijing in January 2013

In Beijing in January 2013, an air-pollution monitor at the U.S. embassy recorded PM2.5 levels above 800 micrograms per cubic meter – more than 25 times the recommended health standard in the U.S. Jason Lee of Reuters wrote: “Air quality in Beijing was the "worst on record," according to environmentalists, as the city's pollution monitoring centre warned residents to stay indoors with pollution 30-45 times above recommended safety levels. Data posted by the monitoring centre showed particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) had reached more than 900 micrograms per square meter at some monitoring stations in Beijing. The recommended daily level for PM2.5 is 20, according to the World Health Organization. Such pollution has been identified as a major cause of asthma and respiratory diseases. [Source: Jason Lee, Reuters, January 13, 2013 >~<]

"This is really the worst on record not only from the official data but also from the monitoring data from the U.S. embassy — some areas in (neighboring) Hebei province are even worst than Beijing," said Zhou Rong, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace. The Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Centre said heavy pollution had been trapped by an area of low pressure, making it harder to disperse, and the conditions were likely to last another two days. >~<

Associated Press and the South China Morning Post reported: “Monday, Beijing schools cancelled outdoor flag-raisings and took sports classes indoors while hospitals saw a spike in respiratory cases. City authorities ordered many factories to scale back emissions, and were spraying water at building sites to try to tamp down the dust and dirt that worsens the noxious haze that has hung over the city since late last week. Demand spiked for face masks and air purifiers, and hospitals saw surges of up to 30 per cent in residents seeking help for breathing problems, state-run media outlets reported. In an unusual public announcement, Beijing authorities advised all residents to "take measures to protect their health". [Source: Associated Press, South China Morning Post, January 14, 2013 |||| ]

"It’s really terrible. I’m extremely upset, but there’s really nothing much I can do," said a Beijing resident out for a morning stroll. Like many Chinese, the man would give only his surname, Kang. Another man, a 60-year-old retiree surnamed Chen, said his elderly relatives had moved to stay with family members outside the city to avoid the pollution. "I’m in pretty good shape, but the older folks have a lot of problems with their hearts — breathing, and high blood pressure," Chen said. PM2.5 fine-particle pollutant readings in certain parts of the city reached nearly 1,000 during some hours of the weekend. Similar levels were only seen before during severe dust storms in the spring or night hours of the Spring Festival when millions of families set off fireworks to celebrate the Lunar New Year. PM2.5 are tiny particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in size, or about 1/30th the average width of a human hair. They can penetrate deep into the lungs, and measuring them is considered a more accurate reflection of air quality than other methods. ||||

Leo Lewis wrote in The Times, “The suggestion, carried by some media, that living in Beijing is the equivalent to having a 20-a-day cigarette habit, has always seemed a bit alarmist. A level-headed paediatrician, however, tells us that if the boy were allowed to fill his lungs with unfiltered Beijing air every day, he might as well be standing in an airport smoking lounge. In air quality terms, China's capital has endured an unusually dreadful start to the year. There have only been a few daylight hours in which the air has been as "good" as Central London at rush hour. [Source: Leo Lewis, The (London) Times, April 22, 2013 ==]

“Since the start of the year, weekend after frustrated, wall-climbing weekend has passed by without any outdoor activity for the family. Every hour, in common with parents across Beijing, we check the air quality app on our phones to discover that it is hovering at levels where children should not engage in anything strenuous outside. At the now notorious peak of Beijing's "airpocalypse" in late January, when long queues of depressed parents and wheezing infants were forming outside local children's hospitals, the PM2.5 index hit 886. ==

Severe Smog Strikes Harbin

In October 2013, The Telegraph reported: “Thick smog enveloped a major Chinese city for a third day with schools and a regional airport shut and poor visibility forcing ground transport to a halt in places. Images from Harbin, a northeastern city of more than 10 million people and the host of a popular annual ice festival, showed roads shrouded in smog, with visibility in some areas reduced to less than 50 metres. Flights remained severely delayed, after more than 250 flights were cancelled at the local airport on Monday, according to Chinese media.[Source: The Telegraph, Agencies, October 22, 2013]

Air pollution levels in Harbin were easing but remained as much as 15 times the levels deemed safe by the World Health Organisation. Figures from monitoring stations showed that concentrations of PM2.5, the tiny airborne particles considered most harmful to health, averaged 266 microgrammes per cubic metre in the city, with one station showing 415. That figure was down from the morning before's level of 822 micrograms per cubic metre and Monday's level of 1,000. The WHO's recommended standard is 25. The overall air quality index had improved to a measure of 397, or "severely polluted". Earlier on Tuesday, the figure exceeded 500, the highest level on the Chinese scale.

Residents of the far northeastern city described a smog that began choking people as much as a week ago but worsened considerably on Sunday night. "You could feel the burning smell in the air, and on the second day the thick fog just blocked your way, keeping you from seeing anything," said Song Ting, a 21-year-old student in Harbin. "It's still disgusting." Zhao Yao, a 25-year-old IT engineer, said: "You feel sick when you breathe. You can't see many people on the street now, and some people wear three masks when going out." The smog in Harbin came as it activated its public heating system before the icy winter, state media said. The issue causes significant public anger and several Chinese newspapers carried images from Harbin on their front pages.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “In Harbin, moist air trapped the pollution at ground level, leaving people to walk through a gray miasma wearing face masks. Visibility was so bad that two buses got lost plying their routes. On Monday and Tuesday, air-quality monitoring stations in some parts of the city reported PM 2.5 concentrations that exceeded 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter — 40 times the level deemed safe by the W.H.O. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, October 24, 2013]

Gwynn Guilford wrote in The Atlantic, “Visibility in Harbin hit 33 feet today, as the city’s air quality index (AQI), which measures fine particulate matter (PM2.5) per cubic meter, exceeded 500—at least 20 times greater than levels the World Health Organization deems safe. And that was just in the “good” neighborhoods. In some areas, PM2.5 soared to 1,000. “You can’t see your own fingers in front of you,” Harbin’s official news site noted, reports Sinosphere, the New York Times’ new China blog. That was severe enough to prompt local officials to close schools and warn Harbin’s 11 million residents to stay home. And that wasn’t just for their lungs. The noxious fog clouded visibility so much that it caused two pileups before the police closed off highways , shutting Heilongjiang Province airports as well. Meanwhile, patients with breathing problems mobbed Harbin hospitals, driving admissions up 30 percent, says Sinosphere. [Source: Gwynn Guilford, The Atlantic, October 21 2013]

Some buildings could barely be seen from the opposite side of the street, while drivers brave enough to take to the roads were forced to flash their hazard warning lights Li Jing wrote in the South China Morning Post, “Dense, choking smog blanketed several northern cities yesterday, with visibility in some areas reduced to less than 10 metres. Drivers complained they were unable to see traffic lights. Air pollution in Harbin rose above the highest point on the government's index for the second consecutive day. The city was forced to take the unprecedented step of closing kindergartens, primary and middle schools because of the smog. In nearby Jilin province, Changchun and Jilin also suffered severe air pollution. Most of the province's main highways were closed. "The choking air smells pungent, hurting my eyes and nose," one resident wrote on Sina Weibo. Others posted photos showing the city's high-rises disappearing into the smog. [Source: Li Jing, South China Morning Post, October 21, 2013]

Causes of the Severe Smog in Harbin

The unusually severe pollution levels were blamed on the city's coal-fired heating system, as well as farmers burning straw and corn stalks as temperatures in the region begin to drop. Gwynn Guilford wrote in The Atlantic, “What’s behind the gray-out? Officials blame lack of wind and the burning of corn for the harvest, but the fact that central heating kicked in on Sunday was also a “key factor,” said Xinhua. In Heilongjiang, which is pretty much in Siberia, temperatures are already near freezing. And it’s only October. By January, they’ll drop to between 10̊F to -11̊F, though extreme lows of -44̊F aren’t unheard of. [Source: Gwynn Guilford, The Atlantic, October 21 2013 /*\]

“Heating’s a big problem in China. As a study published in May 2013 showed, particulate matter in air north of the Huai River is 55 percent higher than in the south—and life expectancies 5.5 years shorter. During the 1990s alone, that cost 500 million residents of northern China 2.5 billion life years, said the researchers. That’s probably due to two policies. First, in order to make the frozen north more hospitable, in 1950 the government determined that those who lived north of the Huai River and the Qinling mountain range could receive coal-powered heating for free. In addition, the hukou (household registration) policy, which makes it difficult for residents of one area to pick up and move to another, means many residents can’t flee to cleaner climes. The government no longer provides coal for free, though it does subsidize it. And though China’s switching from coal-powered heating to natural gas, that transition will be a slow one. /*\

Li Jing wrote in the South China Morning Post, “Harbin environmental authorities said there had been little wind in the atmosphere above the city, and more coal was being burned because central heating had been turned on amid cooler weather. The situation was made worse by the burning of corn stalks in fields around the city. [Source: Li Jing, South China Morning Post, October 21, 2013]

Chinese Government Responds Quickly to Severe Smog in Harbin

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Emergency measures came swiftly in Harbin, the northeastern city blanketed with hazardous smog this week: Schools were shut down, buses ordered off the roads, the airport closed, police roadblocks set up to check tailpipe emissions from cars. City officials even fanned out in the surrounding countryside, ordering farmers to stop burning the cornstalks left in their fields after the harvest. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, October 24, 2013]

“I give credit to the local government for taking these measures,” Ma Jun, an environmental advocate, said of the emergency actions in Harbin. “Of course, they will have some problem with their image, the city’s image — but on the other hand, it shows they put people’s health ahead of saving face. “Having said that, I think it’s not enough,” he added. “I think people won’t be satisfied with just knowing which day to put on face masks or not go to school or keep their children indoors. They really want blue-sky days.” Under pressure from the public, Beijing in 2012 became the first Chinese city to announce levels of an especially hazardous category of particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, in the air. Since then, 113 other cities have followed suit. The data can be seen online in real time, which was how much of China followed the crisis in Harbin.

Li Jing wrote in the South China Morning Post, “ The city's education bureau said kindergartens, primary schools and junior high schools would close for a second day today. It decided to close kindergartens and schools early yesterday morning, but was unable to pass the information to all pupils and parents in time.A middle school teacher said the decision was made around 6am, and he was told about an hour later. In 15 minutes he managed to pass the announcement to all his pupils, but some of them had already left home for school. A parent writing online blamed the education authorities for not making the decision earlier as the smog was already severe on Sunday. "Some kids had already arrived at schools when they were told, and we parents had to take them back home again in such weather. It only creates more chaos," the parent wrote.[Source: Li Jing, South China Morning Post, October 21, 2013]

Air Pollution in Lanzhou

A study by the Washington-based World Resources Institute in the late 1990s reported that nine of the ten cities with the world's worst air pollution were in China. At the top of the list was the northern city of Lanzhou in Gansu Province.

The amount of suspended particles in Lanzhou is twice that of Beijing and 10 times that of Los Angeles. Simply breathing is said to be equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. The pollution is often so bad that people can feel the grit in their noises and between their teeth and routinely develop sore throats, headaches and sinus problems. When children are asked what color the sky is, they often reply: "White, sometimes yellow."

20080317-Lanzhou_Sad_Morning david wolman, blogspot.jpg

The pollution is caused by coal smoke, car exhaust, pollutants released by petrochemical, metal and heavy industry factories and dust blown from the arid yellow mountains that surround the city. The factories in Lanzhou were placed there in accordance with a plan by Mao to locate heavy industry factories in western China where he thought they would less vulnerable to nuclear attack.

The pollution is especially bad because atmospheric conditions create layers of dense air that trap the pollutants and Lanzhou is located in valley surrounded by mountains that prevent winds from blowing the pollutants away. Shutting down some state-owned factories has helped reduce some of the air pollution there.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2013

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