Beijing ordered government vehicles off the roads as part of an emergency response to ease air pollution that has smothered China’s capital for the past three days, while warning the smog will persist until Jan. 16.
Hospitals were inundated with patients complaining of heart and respiratory ailments and the website of the capital’s environmental monitoring center crashed. Hyundai Motor Co.’s venture in Beijing suspended production for a day to help ease the pollution, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Official measurements of PM2.5, fine airborne particulates that pose the largest health risks, rose as high as 993 micrograms per cubic meter in Beijing on Jan. 12, compared with World Health Organization guidelines of no more than 25. It was as high as 500 at 6 a.m. today. Long-term exposure to fine particulates raises the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as well as lung cancer, according to the WHO.
“Pollution levels this high are extreme even for Beijing,” Li Yan, Beijing-based head of Greenpeace East Asia’s climate and energy campaign, said in a telephone interview. “Although the government has announced efforts to cut pollution, the problem is regional and to fix Beijing’s problem, we also have to fix industrial pollution in neighboring regions like Hebei and Tianjin and even as far as Inner Mongolia.”
Exposure to PM2.5 helped cause a combined 8,572 premature deaths in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an in 2012, and led to economic losses of $1.08 billion, according to estimates given in a study by Greenpeace and Peking University’s School of Public Health published Dec. 18. The burning of coal is the main source of pollution, accounting for 19 percent, while vehicle emissions contribute 6 percent, the report said.
“The number of people coming into our emergency room suffering heart attacks has roughly doubled since Friday when the air pollution became really severe,” Ding Rongjing, deputy head of cardiology at Peking University People’s Hospital said in a telephone interview yesterday.
China, which the World Bank estimates has 16 of the world’s 20 most-polluted cities, is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Beijing, home to more than 20 million people, began to release real-time air quality data measuring pollutants of 2.5 micrometers in size in September, and 74 cities started publishing data including PM2.5, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide starting Jan. 1, the official Xinhua news service reported Dec. 28.
Pollution levels in the Chinese capital today had eased from readings Jan. 12 that were estimated at a record high by Greenpeace and the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based nonprofit organization that monitors corporate environmental performance.
Readings for PM2.5 at some official monitoring sites in the city today fell below 400 micrograms per cubic meter. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which uses a monitor in its compound in the east of the capital, showed PM2.5 readings dropping as low as 236 yesterday after reaching 886 on Jan. 12.
While increased coal burning may partly explain the spike, weather conditions trapping the smog are probably more to blame for the high pollution levels, said David Vance Wagner, a San Francisco-based senior researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation, a policy consultancy on vehicle-emissions control policy.
“If you have a few days in a row of weather patterns that aren’t conducive to air pollution dispersing then it can really start to pile up,” Wagner, who writes a blog about Beijing’s air quality, said in a phone interview. “Let’s say Beijing’s pollution is five times or 10 times worse than it was last week. It’s not like there’s five or 10 times more pollution being emitted in the regions around.”
The Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center advised city residents on its official microblog to avoid outdoor activities today as PM2.5 levels in the capital are generally over 300 micrograms per cubic meter.
Beijing yesterday started its emergency-response plan to the severe pollution, which included ordering government vehicles off the roads to cut usage by 30 percent, according to Xinhua, citing Yu Jianhua, director of the city environmental protection bureau’s air quality department.
The plan also calls for construction sites to limit activity that creates large amounts of dust and asks industrial companies to reduce emissions. Residents are advised to stay indoors and use public transport if they need to go out, while primary schools should reduce outdoor activities, Xinhua said.
Beijing Hyundai Motor Co. halted production for a day, and 28 construction sites stopped work as part of the anti-pollution measures, Xinhua said in a separate report, citing the environmental protection bureau.
The deterioration in city’s air quality has been exacerbated by growth in heavy industries in areas surrounding Beijing such as steel making, smelting, power generating and petrochemical sectors, said Ma Jun, a Beijing-based environmentalist and founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. “Increased demand for heating in winter, more vehicles running on the roads, have all contributed to the high level of pollutants in the air.”
The Beijing Children’s Hospital reported 30 percent of its outpatients in the past week had respiratory illnesses, while hospitals in provinces including Hebei, Henan and Jiangxi, which were also hit by worsening air quality, had a “significant increase” in such patients, the People’s Daily reported.
“I’ve seen more patients with coughs that literally start when they get off the plane in Beijing, so it is definitely pollution-related,” said Richard Saint Cyr, a doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital run by Chindex International Inc. “Unfortunately, avoiding the air is the best treatment,” he said, adding that people should use air purifiers and face masks whenever possible.
At Parkson Retail Group Ltd.’s department store 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) west of Tiananmen Square, salesman Liu Xiaoqiang said demand for air purifiers has tripled over the past few days as consumers snap up devices costing several hundred yuan to almost 10,000 yuan ($1,600).
The Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center apologized on its official account on Sina Corp.’s Weibo microblog service for having to take down its website from 8 p.m. on Jan. 12 until 10 a.m. yesterday due to heavy traffic.
Heavy smog has also blanketed northern China’s Hebei province. The provincial capital Shijiazhuang ranked as the most polluted city nationwide, China National Radio said yesterday on its website. Four of China’s 10 most-polluted cities are located in Hebei where the provincial government initiated a level-IV natural disaster response for the first time in history because of smog, according to the report.
Foggy weather will persist for a further three days, affecting central and eastern regions of China, and parts of the southwest, the National Meteorological Center said in an e-mailed report yesterday. “Air quality will be significantly reduced, and the public are reminded to take appropriate protective measures.”
Fog caused disruption to road and air traffic in several provinces, Xinhua said on Jan. 12. In eastern Shandong, more than 20 highways were closed as fog reduced visibility to less than 50 meters in some areas, the official news service said, citing the province’s meteorological center. A total of 63 flights in and out of the provincial capital, Qingdao, were canceled or delayed, affecting about 5,000 passengers, it said at the time.
— With assistance by Daryl Loo, and Feiwen Rong