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Beijing on a bad day
and good day

In 2019, 117 of the 200 most polluted cities in the world were in China. This is better than before. According to the World Bank 16 of the world’s 20 cities with the worst air are in China in 2010. At that time China's environmental protection ministry said about a third of 113 cities surveyed failed to meet national air standard. According to Chinese government sources, about a fifth of urban Chinese breath heavily polluted air. Many places smell like high-sulfur coal and leaded gasoline. Only a third of the 340 Chinese cities that are monitored meet China’s own pollution standards.

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. The smog in all these cities is not as bad as it once was and now cities in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Russia exceed them on list of the world's most polluted cities

In 2013, China's smog problem hit a tipping point. That winter, Beijing's air was so dirty that flights were grounded and hospital respiratory wards were filled to capacity. Chinese citizens began complaining openly, forcing the government to respond. 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.

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. 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.

Rankings of Polluted Cities in China

Most polluted cities in China of 2016:
1) Hengshui, Hebei
2) Shijiazhuang, Hebei
3) Baoding, Hebei
4) Xingtai, Hebei
5) Handan, Hebei
6) Tangshan, Hebei
7) Zhengzhou, Henan
8) Xi'an, Shaanxi
9) Jinan, Shandong
10) Taiyuan, Shanxi
[Source: China's environmental ministry, Shanghaiist, January 23, 2017]

Least polluted cities in China of 2016 1) Haikou, Hainan
2) Zhoushan, Zhejiang
3) Huizhou, Guangdong
4) Xiamen, Fujian
5) Fuzhou, Fujian
6) Shenzhen, Guangdong
7) Lishui, Zhejiang
8) Zhuhai, Guangdong
9) Kunming, Yunnan
10) Taizhou, Zhejiang

In 2015, Xingtai In Ningxia Province was ranked as the dirtiest city in China. It's the heaviest polluter Jizhong Energy Resources Co. operated six large coal mines and dozens of related facilities in this gray industrial area. Five of the facilities are on a national list of top air polluters, and eight are on the Xingtai government's list, more than any other company here. [The Guardian, June 5, 2015]

Worst air pollution in China in the late 2000s: 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).

World's most polluted cities (historical data 2017-2021) based on annual average PM2.5 concentration (μg/m³): ; 1) Bhiwadi, India — 106.2; 2) Ghaziabad, India — 102; 3) Hotan, China — 101.5; 4) Delhi, India — 96.4; 5) Jaunpur, India — 95.3; 6) Faisalabad, Pakistan — 94.2; 7) Noida, India — 91.4; 8) Bahawalpur, Pakistan — 91; 9) Peshawar, Pakistan — 89.6; 10) Bagpat, India — 89.1; 11) Hisar, India — 89; 12) Faridabad, India — 88.9; 13) Greater Noida, India — 87.5; 14) Rohtak, India — 86.9; 15) Lahore, Pakistan — 86.5; 16) Lucknow, India — 86; 17) Jind, India — 84.1; 18) Gurugram, India — 83.4; 19) Kashgar, China 83.2; 20) Kanpur, India — 83.2. [Source: IQAir]

Air Pollution in Beijing

The Beijing government said in a report in 2014 it failed to meet national standards in four of the six major controlled pollutants in 2013. It said its PM2.5 concentrations stood at a daily average of 89.5 micrograms per cubic meter, 156 percent higher than national standards. 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]

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 pediatrician, 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. [Source: Leo Lewis, The (London) Times, April 22, 2013]

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 200 meters in some parts of the city, while official data judged air quality to be 'good'. 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. [Source: AFP, January 11, 2012]

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]

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."

Sources of Beijing’s Air Pollution

According to China Environmental News, a publication of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, vehicle emissions in Beijing were responsible for about 31 percent of the hazardous PM2.5 air pollution , with 22.4 percent originating from coal burning and and 18.1 percent coming from industry. The rest came from outside the city (See Below) . [Source: David Stanway and Kathy Chen, Reuters, May 26, 2014; Reuters, April 16, 2014]

“Wang Junling, the vice head of the Beijing Environmental Protection Research Institute, said the rapid growth of the city's population, energy use and economic output were also to blame for worsening air quality. He told China Environmental News that from 1998 to 2012, Beijing's economic output rose 6.5 times and the number of vehicles rose 2.8 times. Over the same period, the city's population soared 66 percent while energy consumption rose 90 percent.

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.”

One Third of Beijing’s Pollution Comes from Outside the City

In 2014, official media citing a pollution watchdog, reported that about a third of the air pollution in Beijing comes from outside the city. Chen Tian, chief of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, said that about 28-36 percent of hazardous airborne particles known as PM2.5 came from surrounding provinces like Hebei, home to seven of China's 10 most polluted cities in 2013, according to official data. [Source: Reuters, April 16, 2014]

Reuters reported:: “The central government has identified the heavily industrialised Beijing-Hebei-Tianjin region as one of the main fronts in its war against pollution, and it is under pressure to cut coal consumption and industrial capacity.“ Hebei province used about 280 million tonnes of coal in 2013 and aimed to cut the total by 40 million tonnes by 2017.

According to the China Daily: National environmental watchdog's data show that in November 2015 the reading of the major hazardous airborne pollutant PM2.5 saw an increase of close to 60 percent from 2014 in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area, one of the three largest city-clusters on the Chinese mainland. There were four more smoggy days in Beijing in November 2015 compared with November 2014. [Source: Zheng Jinran and Wang Yanfei, China Daily, December 12, 2015]

Northern China's air quality is mainly the result of the region's "irrational industrial structure", He said, mainly excessive dependency on coal for heat, or its use in industries such as steelmaking. Other than the two municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin, coal generates 90 percent of the energy in Hebei In most small cities and their nearby rural areas, infrastructure development has been inadequate, experts said. In the worst cases, local governments at the county or township level still support some highly polluting industries as economic pillars.

Daily Life in Beijing Smog

Oliver Wainwright wrote in The Guardian: “The day I arrive in Beijing, the AQI hits 460, just 40 points away from maximum doom. It’s the kind of air that seems to have a thickness to it, like the dense fug in an airport smokers’ cubicle. It sticks in the back of your throat, and if you blow your nose at the end of the day, it comes out black. Pedalling around the city (I am one of the only cyclists mad enough to be on the road) is an eerie experience — not just for the desolation, but for the strange neon glow coming from signs at the top of invisible buildings, like a supernatural, carcinogenic version of the northern lights. The midday sun hangs in the sky looking more like the moon, its glare filtered out by the haze. Heavy-duty face masks are now frequently seen on Beijing’s streets. Heavy-duty face masks are now frequently seen on Beijing’s streets. [Source: Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian, December 16, 2014]

“Paper face masks have been common here for a long time, but now the heavy-duty kind with purifying canister filters — of the sort you might wear for a day of asbestos removal — are frequently seen on the streets. On bad days, bike lanes are completely deserted, as people stay at home or retreat to the conditioned environments of hermetically-sealed malls. It’s as if the 21-million-strong population of the Chinese capital is engaged in a mass city-wide rehearsal for life on an inhospitable planet. Only it’s not a rehearsal: the poisonous atmosphere is already here.

“The British School has recently undergone a complete filtration overhaul, as if preparing for atmospheric armageddon, with new air curtains installed above the doors and almost 200 ceiling-mounted air purifiers put in to complement the floor-standing kind in each classroom. Windows must remain closed, and pupils must adhere to the strict air safety code. Reception classes stay indoors when the air quality index (AQI) hits 180 — measured on an official scale of 500 by various sensors across the city. For primary kids the limit is 200, while the eldest students are allowed to brave the elements up to 250. Anything above 300 and school trips are called off. The World Health Organisation, meanwhile, recommends a safe exposure level of 25. “We were finding our sports fixtures were being cancelled so often, and kids were getting cabin fever from being kept in doors so much of the time,” says Travis Washko. “But now we have the dome, it’s perfect weather all year round.”

“This year’s Beijing marathon, held on a day that exceeded 400 on the scale, sawmany drop out when their face-mask filters turned a shade of grey after just a few kilometers. Some said it felt like running through bonfire smoke. With such hazardous conditions increasingly common, it’s not surprising that foreign companies are now expected to pay a “hardship bonus” of up to 20 or 30 percent to those willing to work in the Chinese capital.

“And yet denial still persists. Many Beijingers tend to use the word “wumai” (meaning fog), rather than “wuran” (pollution), to describe the poor air quality — and not just because it’s the official Newspeak of weather reports. It’s partly because, one local tells me, “if we had to face up to how much we’re destroying the environment and our bodies every day, it would just be too much.” A recent report by researchers in Shanghai described Beijing’s atmosphere as almost “uninhabitable for human beings” — not really something you want to be reminded of every day.

Living with Air Pollution in Beijing

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. The city government does not dwell on the details; its daily air-quality measurement does not even tally the tiniest particles of pollution, which are the most damaging to the respiratory system. Last year, 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]

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 Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010.

In 2017 the Washington Post reported: “A campaign by angry, largely middle-class parents about the lack of an air filtration system in Beijing’s schools spread like wildfire across social media this week, especially on a messaging app called WeChat. In just over 24 hours, the city government reacted — by promising to equip Beijing’s schools with air cleaning systems. “Yesterday in our WeChat group, I saw parents discussing how many children were coughing and sick,” wrote a parent of a primary schoolchild in the petition. “Parents are very worried, and so am I.” The petition asking the government to install an air filtration system in schools gathered nearly half a million views and more than 2,700 comments in around 24 hours. In another message viewed or shared tens of thousands of times, parents complained that closing schools in periods of heavy smog — as the government now mandates — is not a solution. In China’s National Museum, the air is filtered effectively and pollution eliminated, the message pointed out. “Antiques are important but they represent our past,” the message said. “Our children are more important, because they are the future of our country.” [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, January 6, 2017]

“In December 2015, the Beijing government refused to budge after a similar campaign during another bout of heavy pollution — citing the lack of adequate electric circuitry in schools to install an air-scrubbing system, and the likelihood that open doors would render it ineffective anyway. But this week's announcement did not satisfy many people, especially those living outside the capital.

Airpocalypse Air Pollution Strikes China in 2013

In January 2013, Beijing endured a prolonged period of some of the worst air pollution on record, widely dubbed the “Airpocalypse” that accorred thanks to a combination of windless weather, rising temperatures and emissions from coal heating, From Beijing to the capital to Guiyang, 1,800 kilometers s to the southwest, pollution closed highways, forced the cancellation of flights and outdoor activities, and sent countless people to hospitals. At the peak of Beijing's "airpocalypse" , when long queues of depressed parents and wheezing infants were forming outside local children's hospitals, the PM2.5 index hit 886. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2013; Leo Lewis, Times]

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: "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. Another man, a 60-year-old retiree, 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. ||||

On the wave of bad air in January 2013 struck a wide area. Associated Press and the South China Morning Post reported: “China’s national weather service said that the choking smog wreaked havoc in large parts of the country lasted for many days. Worst-hit regions including Beijing, Hebei, Tianjin, Henan and Shandong were 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 regions didn't see major relief until a cold front coming down from the north cleared away the haze and pollutants. [Source: Associated Press, South China Morning Post, January 14, 2013]

Severe Smog Strikes Harbin

Jennifer Duggan wrote in The Guardian, Beijing's "'airpocalyps"' garnered headlines worldwide but in October 2013, 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 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]

Harbin residents said they couldn't see their dogs at the end of the leash. The episode brought back memories of the famous London smog of December 1952, when deadly coal-fired pollution lasted for five days, leading to an estimated 12,000 premature deaths, according to a 2002 study by British health officials. 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 one day alone, according to Chinese media.[Source: The Telegraph, Agencies, October 22, 2013]

PM2.5 levels reached 1,000 micrograms per cubic metre. The WHO's recommended standard is 25. Residents of Harbin said the smog began choking people for several days and then worsened considerably on a 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.

Gwynn Guilford wrote in The Atlantic, “You can’t see your own fingers in front of you,” Harbin’s official news site noted. The smog was severe enough to prompt local officials to close schools and warn Harbin’s 11 million residents to stay home. 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. 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. [Source: Gwynn Guilford, The Atlantic, October 21 2013]

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. In Jilin province, Changchun and Jilin 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 and weather conditions that compressed the smog at ground level. 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 June 2022

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