China Pollution Tops Hazardous Levels Ahead of Congress

Source: AFP/Getty Images

People wearing masks visit the Temple of Heaven in haze-covered Beijing on Feb. 24, 2014. Close

People wearing masks visit the Temple of Heaven in haze-covered Beijing on Feb. 24, 2014.

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Source: AFP/Getty Images

People wearing masks visit the Temple of Heaven in haze-covered Beijing on Feb. 24, 2014.

Pollution in Beijing was stuck at unhealthy levels for the seventh straight day, prompting warnings for people to stay indoors as thick gray smog shrouded the capital a week before the annual meeting of China’s legislature.

The concentration of PM2.5, the small particles that pose the greatest risk to human health, hit 512 at 10 a.m. today, or “beyond index,” according to a U.S. Embassy pollution monitor. The World Health Organization recommends day-long exposure levels of 25, and the last time PM2.5 dropped below 150 in Beijing was Feb. 19.

The heavy smog in Beijing may draw new scrutiny to government pledges to ease pollution around the country as leaders gather for the meeting of the National People’s Congress that begins March 5. At the end of last year’s event, Premier Li Keqiang promised to clean up pollution and said smog gave him a “heavy heart.”

Can China Clear the Air?

In a bid to fight Beijing’s pollution, 147 industrial companies have cut or suspended production, the Xinhua News Agency reported yesterday, citing the Beijing Municipal Economic and Information Commission. In Liaoning and Shandong provinces, visibility fell to less than 50 meters and expressways were closed, Xinhua said.

“The real work has to happen to get to the sources of the pollution and eliminate that over time,” Bernhard Schwartlander, the World Health Organization’s China representative, said at a briefing yesterday in Beijing. “We have to put more pressure on all of the authorities and all the industry production to improve so we can actually reduce the very heavy pollution.”

More Vocal

Government officials and agencies have become more vocal in decrying China’s soiled water, air and soil, which has become a leading cause of social unrest in the nation of 1.3 billion people. The U.S. Embassy’s pollution monitor said the Air Quality Index in the city exceeded 150 on 26 of the last 31 days.

Smog here is now at an “unbearable stage,” the government’s top climate-change adviser, Li Junfeng, said Feb. 23. That statement followed a Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences report that said Beijing, was “barely suitable” for living.

Ordinary Chinese have also found new ways to express their anger about pollution. A man in northern China, Li Guixin, filed a lawsuit against his hometown of Shijiazhuang, saying it owed him the 10,000 yuan ($1,635) he spent on an air filter and a treadmill to exercise indoors, his lawyer Wu Yufen said yesterday.

Air Quality

“Li Guixin couldn’t take a walk or run like in the past as air quality worsened and he also has to wear a mask now when he goes out,” said Wu, who also lives in Shijiazhuang, home to some of China’s worst air pollution. “His case is relevant for everyone in our city.”

In response, the chief engineer of the city environmental protection bureau said the lawsuit reflects the public’s increased environmental awareness.

“No matter what the result of the lawsuit turns out to be, the city’s environmental authority will work scrupulously to fulfill its duties in combating air pollution,” Cheng Gang said, according to Xinhua.

North and central China have seen medium- or heavy-pollution since Feb. 20, with the most severe smog in Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei province and surrounding areas, the National Meteorological Center said today on its website. The center forecast that the smog will ease today.

2014 Legislature

The conditions in Beijing were similar to those the city saw before the meeting of the legislature last year, when concentrations of PM2.5 rose to 469, according to the Beijing government.

The smog hasn’t dispersed because of “disadvantaged diffusion conditions for pollutants,” Zhang Kai, a Beijing-based officer at Greenpeace, said by phone today. “Pollution is always a regional issue and the government should ask more provinces to control coal consumption.”

Exposure to PM2.5 contributed to 8,572 premature deaths in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an in 2012, according to estimates by Greenpeace and Peking University’s School of Public Health. Coal burning is the main source of pollution, accounting for 19 percent, while vehicle emissions contribute 6 percent, according to the report.

Chinese authorities have pledged to shut polluting factories and limit the number of cars to curb air pollution. The environmental protection regulator said Feb. 23 it had sent inspection teams to determine if local authorities in Beijing and surrounding areas had taken adequate measures against smog.

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Feifei Shen in Beijing at fshen11@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Nicholas Wadhams at nwadhams@bloomberg.net

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